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How Financial Services Brands Are Marketing Virtual Assistants

• Author: Financial Services Team

Virtual assistants and artificial intelligence (AI) are not new, but so far only a few “bots” have gone mainstream. While Watson, Siri and Alexa have reached near-celebrity status, the adoption of AI is moving slowly, especially outside of these heavily tech-focused segments. In financial services, for example, even though technology and data are necessary for even the most basic transactions, consumers seem most comfortable when tech sits behind the scenes and asks for as little personal information as possible… for now.

However, this doesn’t mean AI hasn’t arrived in the consumer banking experience: a number of large and small financial institutions have already deployed voice assistants and other kinds of AI. According to data from Celent, 32% of FIs say they’re making direct investments in AI, and last year Personetics reported that “over three quarters of financial institution respondents view chatbots as a viable commercial solution now or within the next 1-2 years, and almost half of the companies already have active chatbot projects in place.”

When it comes to the return on this investment, an industry expert cited by American Banker in “The top tech priorities for banks in 2018” puts it this way: “Commercial banks will use AI and intelligent virtual assistants to provide actionable insights that drive better conversations, better outcomes and more opportunities to cross sell and build stronger relationships.” And Bankrate says, “Users are increasingly comfortable interacting with digital assistants, and the technology is only improving. In a sense, chatbots restore some of the personal connection that has been lost to banking as the internet has made the experience more self-directed. While you may be speaking to a robot, the service is designed to feel like you’re talking to a banker.”

Currently, of course, much of this – the ability to cross sell, build stronger relationships and make personal connections – is aspirational. As conversational as many voice assistants appear, “most bots today have limited capabilities,” says Jim Marous in The Financial Brand. “Some simply replicate [the] FAQ experience, while others simply replace low level human-based customer service capabilities.”

As consumer-facing AI exists today in financial services, then, it’s safe to say its primary function is to help banks provide another path to good customer service and positive customer experiences. To their credit, banks and other financial institutions are being realistic about this in marketing financial services AI. Instead of making claims that their virtual assistants are already able to deepen relationships with their customers, they’re touting the technology as another point of access. Most FS brands are positioning virtual assistants (like the skills they’ve built for Amazon’s Alexa) as one more item in their customers’ tool box, an addition to the brands’ digital offerings.

Marketing Alexa’s financial skills
Amazon permits outside developers to create “skills” that expand the capabilities of its voice-activated assistant Alexa, and many FIs have rolled out skills that give Alexa the ability to answer customer questions on their behalf. With these skills, Alexa is able to provide information like branch hours, locations, loan rates and routing numbers and even conduct some basic bank business, such as transfers and bill payments.

The list of FIs with Alexa skills includes a broad range of players from large global brands to small local credit unions. In nearly every case, FI website pages describing the Alexa skill dedicate most of their real estate to educating customers about what it is and how it works:

  • Numerica Credit Union, for example, provides detailed lists about the ways its Alexa skill “lets you talk to your money.”
  • The page on Capital One’s website dedicated to Alexa includes extensive resources like “1-2-3 steps” to get started, sample questions and how-to videos.

When it comes to messaging, most FIs are promoting their Alexa skills as an easy and convenient way to access basic information and conduct simple transactions:

Many FIs also make it clear that their Alexa skills simply expand their digital footprint. Instead of replacing an existing point of contact, they say their Alexa skills create new opportunities:

  • Crane Credit Union pitches its Alexa skill as “a new service to enhance the Credit Union’s self-service banking technologies.”
  • Trailhead Credit Union tells members that Alexa is an “additional way for you to connect with Trailhead.”
  • JPMorgan Chase’s Alexa skill “empowers clients to access JPMorgan research whenever and however they choose, making it more accessible, providing a new digital platform for our research.”
  • The American Express Alexa skill is “a new way to connect with American Express,” including Amex offers.
  • U.S. Bank presents its Alexa skill in the most casual (i.e. non-threatening) way possible: it’s simply “the latest in a series of innovations” and just one of many ways the FI helps you “bank when and where you want.”

Marketing proprietary virtual assistants
Although Alexa is popular among consumers and a growing number of banks, AI in financial services isn’t limited to the Amazon universe. Financial institutions are also developing their own virtual assistants, and as we’ve observed with messaging around Alexa skills, the marketing of these bank-based projects emphasizes access and customer service:

  • In mid-March, Bank of America rolled out its virtual assistant Erica to customers in Rhode Island as one part of its “high-tech, high-touch client experience.” As it says on Erica’s “coming soon” landing page, “Everybody needs an assistant. Soon you’ll have one. When she gets here, she’ll be ready to learn and help take care of your banking needs,” including paying bills, transferring money, reviewing past transactions and sending money to friends. According to a bank representative, as quoted in the Charlotte Business Journal, Erica lets Bank of America “help clients with their financial needs throughout their lifetimes and deliver extraordinary client care at all times, no matter how they choose to do their banking.”
  • Capital One describes text bot “Eno” as its “new intelligent assistant.” The landing page for Eno states, “You’re really good at texting which means you can be really good with money using Eno… Your Capital One accounts are a text away.” The page lists the kinds of information customers can access by texting Eno, presents a light-hearted video demo depicting Eno’s capabilities, provides steps for getting started and includes FAQs.

Looking ahead
WIRED reports that “customer-service-by-bot” is just the start: “Chatbots were initially incorporated to provide limited FAQ support, but we now see sophisticated virtual agents taking on full advisory and service support roles.” Jim Marous calls it “a shift in how we think about mobile services – a transition from transactions to interactions.” Citing Accenture, Marous believes that these interactions, under the broad umbrella “conversation,” could become “the third pillar of a financial institution’s distribution network, joining mobile banking and a smaller branch network.”

Some FIs are already looking ahead to these developments and trying to balance opportunities and risks within the context of the customer relationship:

  • As part of Bank of America’s road map, American Banker reports that developers are teaching the chatbot to move beyond its current capabilities: “This is the evolution of a new platform that’s a post-mobile experience. It starts with conversation but eventually leads into a lot more dynamic insight and being able to engage the customer.”
  • In the fall of 2017, USAA conducted a pilot program for its Alexa skill, putting the customer relationship front and center. In a press release about the pilot it said, “Our members deserve great experiences each and every time they interact with us. What we learn from this pilot will help shape how we view member service in years to come.”
  • While deploying its Alexa skill, Ally Bank was determined to preserve its level of personal service. As reported at PYMNTS.com, “Ally is working to make interactions with both human employees and AI feel like one and the same.” PYMNTS quoted Ally’s chief information officer of digital channel technologies as saying, “The number one goal is to make sure we don’t put a capability out there that doesn’t fit the brand of Ally, that doesn’t feel human.”

In an industry with huge privacy and security barriers to overcome, it’s wise for financial institutions to start small with AI and be clear when marketing financial services AI about what the virtual assistants can and cannot do at this moment. It’s also important for the AI strategy – and the AI marketing strategy – to evolve as the technology continues to advance, becoming, as predicted, a point of deeper engagement and a bigger piece of the customer relationship.

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