HONG KONG (May 4): Citigroup Inc said it's set to be the first major bank in Asia to roll out voice recognition technology to its retail customers, part of a move to upgrade its Internet and mobile banking offering across the region.

The New York-based bank plans to have at least 1 million Asian users of the technology within the next 12 months, doing away with cumbersome passwords and speeding up transactions such as money transfers, bill payments and checks on account balances, according to Anand Selvakesari, Citigroup's Singapore-based consumer banking head for Asia Pacific.

"One of the frustrating points for the client is remembering the password and being asked questions multiple times over," Mr Selvakesari, 49, said in an interview last week.

The growth of Internet and mobile banking means that about 95% of Citigroup's retail banking transactions in the region take place outside the branch network, Mr Selvakesari said.

The US firm reduced the number of branches in Asia by 9% to 481 in the first quarter from a year earlier, according to a statement in April. At the same time, it added about 1 million new digital banking clients, said James Griffiths, the bank's Hong Kong-based spokesman.

Asia contributed about 21% of the group's global consumer banking business by revenue, Citigroup said in the statement.

Mr Selvakesari said Citigroup will roll out the voice recognition technology in Singapore first, followed by Australia, Hong Kong, India and Taiwan over the next few months.

Those markets have the highest proportion of digital banking usage in the region, ranging from 40% to 60%, Mr Griffiths said.

The new technology will allow Citigroup's Asian customer service division, which receives about 35 million customer calls every year, to cut the average time it takes to validate a client's identity over the phone to 15 seconds, from 45 seconds previously, Mr Selvakesari said.

"It's a very interesting phase of evolution," Mr Selvakesari said. "We're looking forward to this phase of the next two to three years of the whole digital transformation that is happening."

Last year, Citigroup introduced voice recognition to its credit card customers in the US, the bank's first use of the technology. Some 70% of those customers have enrolled, Mr Selvakesari said.

HSBC Holdings Plc and Standard Chartered Plc are among other banks looking into the voice recognition services in Asia.

Standard Chartered's Retail Banking Chief Executive, Karen Fawcett, said voice recognition is a "very interesting area that we are exploring" in Asia. HSBC said it is planning to introduce the service in Hong Kong in the second half of this year, after a launch in the UK in the summer.

"Our customers are looking for simple yet secure ways to bank," Kevin Martin, HSBC's head of retail banking and wealth management for Asia Pacific, said in an e-mailed reply.

"In the future, we expect biometrics to become the norm for personal identification in many of our day to day activities, including banking."

The total revenue of finance biometrics hardware and software will jump to US$2.2 billion ($3 billion) in 2024 from US$126 million in 2015, with Asia Pacific being the biggest contributor, according to a forecast by Tractica LLC. Mobile banking will remain a key area to fuel the market growth, the research firm said in a report in August.