As more consumers move their money online, digital banking must become as personal as the in-branch service and will become a key selling point for banks in the future. Sam Forsdick talks to tech expert Nripendra Acharya about how an AI smart assistant could make the difference
The AI smart assistant is a type of advanced chatbot that helps customers choose the best products tailored to their needs by asking questions to understand them
Nripendra Acharya has written a white paper on the subject in which he has called on mainstream retail banks to adopt the tech
Research shows almost 3,000 high street banks have closed within the past three years, while digital-only challenger banks like Monzo have enjoyed massive surges in popularity
As the world of finance moves online, the days of being able to talk to a bank clerk about interest rates, loans and mortgages in a branch seem numbered.
But what if we could ask the detailed questions and receive the intelligent answers tailored to our unique circumstances?
In a sense, this change is already underway as chatbots gain popularity with retail banks, but the answers are automated and, as a result, often limited in how useful they are.
The “smart assistant” could be the difference. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, it learns a user’s identity through questions and quickly finds the best banking products for their needs.
Nripendra Acharya argues the case for “bringing back a human level of engagement and assistance to digital channels”.
“Inherently financial decisions and financial products have extra meaningful and consequential impact on customers’ lives so they want to make sure that they’re making the correct decision,” he tells Compelo.
“The most important way of doing that is by asking questions, garnering a context for that digital traffic and then providing relevant and personalised product recommendations.”
Nripendra, who has written a white paper on the subject of adopting a more personalised service in digital banking, is business development manager at Smart Assistant, an international technology company that provides a digital assistant service for companies.
He points out how the smart assistant is a service available with companies like Microsoft – which uses the technology to recommend computer software to business customers – and Canon’s camera recommendation tool.
Its existence in banking is also used by the likes of Keybank in the US for a similar purpose with banking products but remains in an embryonic stage.
“The smart assistant is in a unique space,” adds Nripendra, whose company is in talks with unnamed UK banks about its adoption.
“There are a lot of competitors in the chatbot AI space – but there aren’t many that combine visual aesthetics, images, and questions into one experience that would sit on a product category page.”
Smart assistant is response to digital banking shift
The move online for banking customers is well underway now.
Alongside the growth of these disruptor banks has come the well-documented decline of high street banking
Over the past three years high street bank branches have closed at a rate of 60 a month with a total of 2,868 closures expected between 2015 and the end of this year.
Despite these changes within the banking sector, research shows customers still prefer the more traditional and personal approach of in store banking.
A study by data and analytics company GlobalData, which surveyed 21,000 people across 20 different markets, found that 35% of consumers remain against the idea of purely digital banks, with a further 30% still on the fence.
Consumer expectations have already changed
Nripendra believes banks are missing the mark with what customers really want.
After attending a summit on customer banking, he was surprised that real-time payments were such a big topic of conversation.
This new process of payments guarantees that anyone receiving money will have it available in their account immediately.
He says companies like Zelle and Venmo – which allow instant payment sharing between friends – were being discussed “in some idealistic way” even though he has used Venmo for the past six years.
He adds: “The consumer expectation has already changed. In order for banks to remain competitive and to provide the best consumer experience they need to match this personalised, instantaneous service.”
The AI smart assistant is designed to reduce complexity and increase convenience.
Machine learning and AI mean only the most relevant questions are asked customers to help guide them and aid their decision-making.
Other companies that have used it include Amazon and Lidl to improve their customer support services and Nripendra believes it’s time it was adopted in online banking.
“Any bank can offer lots of products on their website,” he says.
“The difference is going to be guiding customers to making the right decision and then, within that process, learning about your customers.
“So later on, when they are looking for different products or advice, you already have that knowledge about them to provide the most relevant content and products.”
Building a relationship with consumers through smart assistant
According to Nripendra, developing a strong relationship with customers is key for digital banks.
“If a bank is just a financial product, it’s not going to be as competitive as disruptors that provide more than just financial products,” he says.
“They need to fit into each customer’s lifestyle.”
In order to work effectively, the digital and in-branch services need to be connected.
He adds: “It doesn’t make sense for a customer to spend hours online researching and then go in branch and be told the same information again.”
Through the smart assistant, banks can develop the same level of trust and engagement with customers online as they currently do in branch.
Nripendra believes a more personalised and round-the-clock experience will result in customers that have the confidence to make financial decisions with their bank online – rather than resorting to Google to get their financial information.
He adds: “Each financially-motivated click outside a bank’s native digital environment is a missed opportunity to understand and connect with their customers.
“The bank of the future employs a frictionless experience that effectively builds trusted lifetime relationships through great engagement and consistency.”
If banks can replicate the personal and knowledgeable service provided in branch to their digital platforms, they may be able to persuade more people to make the switch.