Sep 19 2017

Banks Embrace Voice Technology as the Future of Customer Interaction

Though it’s still early days in terms of adoption, banks see great promise in voice-activated solutions.

Why tap on your smartphone to get your checking account balance when you can just ask Amazon’s Alexa? That’s the way banks seem to be thinking, and it’s what they want their customers to be thinking too.

Although few banks have adopted voice-based artificial intelligence technology on a large scale, many are experimenting with it and they see lots of potential. Banks see the IT solutions as being more convenient for customers. Voice-based banking can also reduce the need for human customer service representatives, which reduces staffing costs, and potentially boost customer satisfaction and retention.

Voice-based searches and interactions with mobile and electronic devices are set to increase, experts say. Mary Meeker, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a renowned internet expert, said last year that by 2020, voice- and image-based searches will make up at least 50 percent of all searches, citing Andrew Ng, web services company Baidu's chief scientist.

Meanwhile, Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30 percent of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen. “New audio-centric technologies, such as Google Home and Amazon's Echo, are making access to dialogue-based information ubiquitous and spawning new platforms based on ‘voice-first’ interactions.

Banks Turn to Voice Technology for Payments and More 

Banks are increasingly taking note. In early August, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) announced that customers can now pay their bills using Apple’s Siri voice-based virtual assistant on iPhones and iPads.

“By giving clients the ability to seamlessly and conveniently bank using voice commands, we’re delivering simple and innovative solutions,” Sean Amato-Gauci, executive vice-president of cards, payments and banking at RBC, says in a statement.

Around the same time, USAA announced a pilot project to tap Amazon’s Alexa to give USAA members access to information about their account balances, transactions and spending patterns. Customers who have an Alexa-based device, such as the Echo or Echo Dot, can turn on the feature through the device’s application and link it to their bank account. USAA is looking for customers to test the technology by signing up online, though USAA plans to end the pilot at the end of October.

“USAA’s skill for Amazon Alexa pilot will leverage Clinc’s artificial intelligence conversation management technology to produce a more human-like interaction from Amazon Alexa, as the skill remembers context, follow-up questions, and complex human language,” the bank says in a press release. “This technology will also learn as members interact with it and infer information not explicitly specified by users throughout a conversation.”

Alexa will tell users whether they are over their monthly budget for a certain spending category or whether they have enough money to make a specific purchase.

“Talking about your finances can be painful at times,” Darrius Jones, assistant vice president of USAA Labs, tells the San Antonio Express-News. “And so when you think of the emotion around having a conversation about your personal finances, we believe this is the first step of many to allow people to have that conversation continuously with us as an organization.”

Earlier this month, U.S. Bank said its customers can now check their account balances, hear payment due dates and the amount due, obtain account transaction history and make payments to U.S. Bank credit cards by speaking a command to an Amazon Alexa device.

“Voice technology is going to be central to the future of digital interaction,” Gareth Gaston, head of omnichannel banking at U.S. Bank, says in a press release, calling the integration with Alexa, “a great example of innovation coming home for U.S. Bank customers.”

What to Consider When Adopting Voice Tech

Banks are clearly getting on the bandwagon. But what should other financial institutions think through before adopting voice-based technology solutions? Tara Kelly, CEO of SPLICE Software, a customer relationship management tech company that works in the finance, retail and insurance industries, tells The Financial Brand that security should be a key focus.

Kelly also says banks need to ensure they have the network and data infrastructure to support such solutions, because customers will write off new technology if they have one bad experience.

“One of the most important things for any firm to look at is the quality and the timeliness of the data that will be used to support the voice dialogs,” she says. “More than ever before, customers expect that their questions will be answered in real-time, and if the data isn’t available to support real-time, it will lead to a poor customer experience.”

Banks should also “identify key areas where a customer might want to get quick information — either without having to log-in to their online account, or to obtain information that isn’t generally available from an internet banking portal,” Kelly says.

Banks should also consider building their own branded voice-based services, Kelly says, since there are “strategic risks” in innovating around a single device instead of a bank's brand.

“Building a strategy around a device, without incorporating your brand, can mean losing your company brand as the name of your app or skill,” she says. “Your customers don’t call you by your full legal name when speaking. What do they say? That’s the name they will search for on these devices, and the name you need to register and own.”

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