New channels, new voices: Customer engagement goes digital

Leading Accenture’s programme is one of the most exciting jobs in the business. It gives me a great ringside seat on the latest innovations in this space and the trends that will transform every area of banking in the next few years. In this, the second blog in my ongoing series, I want to focus on the new that are opening up, and what they mean for how engage with their customers.

Channels are critical. They’re nearly always the first point of contact between customers and financial services providers and, as such, they set expectations around the type of service that’s likely to be provided from then on. Over the years, we’ve seen many startups in the labs looking at this area. No surprise. Digital affords unprecedented opportunities for completely reinventing the quality of experience that customers receive.

Banks are adopting various different strategies for evolving their traditional channels. Some have focused on the branch as a primary point of contact, and branch network optimisation has been a theme for many of our clients, maintaining branches where they identify value and pulling back where they’re either unused or not economically viable.

Some new challengers are going mobile-only. But many in the middle are looking at a whole range of approaches. With of such high importance, a key priority is enhancing channels to make them easier to use: making use of voice as an authentication tool, for example.

Whatever the course of action, all the initiatives we see have one primary objective: providing an easier and more convenient customer experience. The latest leap forward in this regard is the use of chatbots. These are like ‘live chat’ services that let people interact in real time with online services. The big difference? There’s a robot not a person at the other end of the proverbial line.

Chatbots have been around for years in many different forms. Old-school messengers like ICQ, for example, had a simple version of this that exercised call and response based on hard-coded logic and/or guesswork.

It might seem counter-intuitive that a command line-based interface would be the next big thing. But it’s a trend that’s been prompted by platforms. Facebook’s chatbot platform, for instance, has proved particularly popular with some sectors of the population. So have the platforms offered by WeChat, Snapchat and WhatsApp. The ease of interacting with all of these via mobile has been a major factor in their uptake.

The chatbot model has evolved from answering relatively simple questions to leveraging machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and textual analysis APIs to answer more complex ones. These models learn over time, getting better at interpreting our intentions and executing them quicker.

Some chatbots are standalone apps. London-based startups in this space include Plum, Chip and Cleo . Plum’s been promoted as the first AI-powered Facebook chatbot that lets customers ‘micro-save’ small sums without having to think about it. It does this by connecting to users’ current accounts, learning their spending habits, predicting how much they can afford to save and automatically depositing small amounts into their Plum savings account on a regular basis.

Chip’s another micro-saving chatbot. The startup’s USP is that it opted to develop its own iOS and Android chatbot, rather than depending on an existing messaging app. Cleo, meanwhile, is an AI-powered chatbot that lets users check all their bank account and credit card data in one place. By allowing them to keep tabs on their spending, it helps users improve budgeting and get smarter with their money. The chatbot also suggests ways to improve saving, whether that’s rationalising subscriptions or identifying better value financial products.

The next big trend could see people engaging with a bank’s/partner’s third-party proprietary chatbot as a servicing platform (“tell me my balance”, “send money to X”, “tell me when my repayment is due”…etc). A number of players have been looking at how services might be provided through other people’s channels.

But will incumbent banks be willing to provide APIs so they can form part of other people’s bots/platforms (like Monzo’s done by enabling its service to be used on Amazon’s Alexa)? It’s an interesting question. Will they be comfortable with sensitive customer data being relayed through other peoples ‘walled gardens’? In some respects, PSD2 may answer this question for them.

With 2017 being touted as the ‘year of voice’, expect to see more vendors seeking to launch similar propositions to Amazon’s Alexa. As that happened, perhaps we’ll leap from text to voice even quicker than we think. For banks, this will add momentum to their push to reduce the number of calls real people need to answer.

There’s a lot of opportunity right now. But banks should exercise caution in how they expand the channels through which they engage—and as they move forward, do so consciously and strategically. Otherwise costs will continue to go up, with customers fragmented across both low- and high-cost channels. Leaders in this area will have a clear point of view on their channel strategy, and they’ll apply this thinking to their response to PSD2/open banking.

That said, people still like to talk to people. And that’ll never change. We’ll be watching closely to see how this space evolves.

Thanks for reading.

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