Mar 26 2018

Why Conversational UIs Are the Next Great Frontier in Banking

From brick-and-mortar branches to web and mobile platforms, banks are using artificial intelligence and user interfaces that customers can speak with to master the art of the chat.

In the era of digital banking, personal interactions with friendly tellers are becoming relics of the past. But thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence, that may be changing. Some banks are using advanced AI bots to communicate with customers the old-fashioned way — through natural language conversation.

So-called conversational user interfaces (CUIs) are beginning to gain traction in banking. With CUIs, customers use text or voice to interact with advanced chatbots that help them with everything from checking balances to paying bills to getting financial advice. The bots are being embedded in banks’ mobile apps, in widely used chat platforms such as Facebook Messenger, and in voice-activated digital assistants such as Amazon Echo.

Banking is among many industries that have been experimenting with natural language bots for years, with mixed success. Any account holder who’s been told by a pleasant-sounding voice that “you can say things like ‘Check my balance’ or ‘Pay my bill,’” during a call to the customer service center is familiar with the concept. But these legacy bots do more to frustrate customers than delight them — “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that” is what they seem to say most often — because users can say only certain phrases that the bots are programmed to understand. However, that’s starting to change.

“Recent advancements in AI, machine learning and natural language processing are enabling more sophisticated chatbots that make it easier and more efficient for banks to communicate with their customers,” explains Keith Armstrong, co-founder of Abe AI, in an article for The Financial Brand.

Imagine sending a text to find out if your mortgage check cleared. Or asking your Google Home device how much you spent at restaurants last month.

Or better: Imagine your bank’s bot calling you to discuss a potentially fraudulent charge on your credit card — and having the entire conversation go smoothly. Thanks to advanced machine learning, CUIs are making such sophisticated interactions possible.

And experts argue that conversational banking is the next frontier for an industry that has already evolved from bricks and mortar to web to mobile.

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How Some Banks Use Conversational UIs Today 

A number of American financial institutions have started offering CUI banking to their customers. Capital One’s Eno textbot makes it possible for customers to check their balances, review transactions and pay their bills. Launched last March as a pilot, Eno is available now to all customers. Capital One has also embedded a voice-command CUI into Amazon Alexa.

Bank of America’s Erica, a text- and voice-based bot embedded into the bank’s app, sends customers notifications, identifies areas where they can save money, provides updates on their credit scores and more. Ally Bank’s Ally Skill does much of the same.

The trend has not yet penetrated smaller banks, however, and even many larger banks’ CUI projects remain in the trial phase. The simple reason is that the technology is still evolving, and while machine learning has come a long way, the bots are, well, still learning.

Banks Must Rethink Tech Staffing

Ken Dodelin, Capital One’s vice president of conversational AI product development, explained the challenges Eno confronted as it learned how customers communicate via text.

“Some [customers] are very to the point and all about abbreviations — ‘bal’ for ‘balance,’” Dodelin said. “Others are chatty and text like they speak: ‘Hi Eno! How much money do I have today?’ Some have typos in every other word — ‘val’ is a common one since ‘b’ is adjacent to ‘v’ on the keyboard — while others prefer emojis. In fact, we’ve seen customers use a thumbs-up emoji to confirm their payment more than 50 percent of the time, and Eno understands.”

At the same time, even large banks are competing with other industries to hire the technical professionals who can move their CUI programs forward. In its report on CUIs in banking, Accenture argues that banks will need to rethink the kinds of technical talent they recruit, and be ready to compete with retailers and other consumer industries for that talent.

“Banks will need to look for new skills and talent — including neurolinguists, voice recognition experts, AI experts and CUI designers,” argues Accenture. “Recruiting and retaining these people won’t always be easy … but it’s an essential step to success.”

MaksimYremenko/Getty Images

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