Is the future of banking customer service going to be through a chat bot?

Over the past month Facebook and Telegram have both announced developer kits to enable organisations to create a virtual ‘bot’ that will help provide a new channel for customer service. Now, nothing is new about bots, they’ve existed in multiple forms for years, however this is the first time the mass public will have been heavily exposed to them.

IKEA used Anna to help customers with questions and basic servicing (e.g. ordering missing parts)

A few examples have appeared so far, such as Poncho and CNN. Poncho enables you to chat with their virtual cat bot (nothing quite like talking to a weather moggy). CNN’s bot allows you to discuss your news preferences and subscribe to alerts and updates.

CNN and Poncho inside Facebook Messenger

The first bank to announce a bot launch on Facebook Messenger is Bank of America. This was the description provided at the Facebook launch:

“Bank of America is working with Messenger to deliver capabilities to help its clients stay connected to their finances whenever and wherever they choose. Initial capabilities will enable clients to receive important real-time alerts and communications from Bank of America through Messenger.”

After reading a lot about this technology, it got me thinking; how would I want to use a bot in my day to day banking?

The Robot push and pull?

The obvious starting point for most banks would be to design bots to work with the technologies they already have, in this case notifications.

Botify me!

Alerts enable customers to understand more about the usage of their bank. Some examples include:

  • Notify me when a payment takes place on my card or account
  • Tell me when my balance gets too low
  • Something looks suspicious, tell me so I can do something about it

The majority of banks already have these alerts configured for SMS or push notifications, so adding them to a bot shouldn’t be to difficult (ignoring the multitude of security issues — read further).

Mondo notification of payment in Starbucks

The Conversationalist Bot

The obvious advantage of having a chat bot is the conversation that can take place, but what sort of things would I want to ask a virtual banking bot to do? How about:

  • Where is my nearest branch?
  • How much would I have to pay every month on a £5000 loan?
  • What’s my account balance?
  • Have there been any transactions from <insert company name here>?
  • Have I been paid?
  • I’ve lost my card, can you cancel and order me a new one?

All of these questions should be relatively straight forward for any bank to answer. The real challenges come once things become a bit more complex:

  • Can I open a new savings account?
  • How can I best invest my money?
  • I’m thinking of buying a house, how much money could I borrow?
  • I’d like to pay my son who is living in Argentina, can I set up a new payment?

Some of these questions can be responded to in an unauthenticated way, however as you see can see, to add the real value, the customer will have to be authenticated.

Secure that Bot

Security will ultimately be the crux of the challenges faced by the majority of banks: how will they authenticate a customer using a platform like Facebook Messenger? What information will they be prepared to divulge to a 3rd-party?

The reality is that for anything complex, or requiring a customers personal information, the majority of banks will not trust a 3rd-party, such as Facebook, until the security model is fully established.

Sadly, I fear this leads us back to a place where chat bots provide only simple notifications and alerts for the majority of customers, until security becomes something that is embedded directly into the chat channels.

The only other way I can envisage this working is if chat bots are provided directly by the banks, who can then control and manage all aspects of the security and authentication themselves. What sort of user experience this would provide is anyones guess.

Your Bots Persona

One of the key things I liked about the Poncho chat bot was the fact they had given it a personality. Admittedly, a cat may not be the best banking advisor (or maybe it would be), however the concept was something I appreciated. Making a conversation feel more like a real interaction is something that I believe will become more important to customers as they engage with technology, such as the way that people now talk to Alexa on the Amazon Echo.

It could also be nice to allow a customer to choose their persona — I personally would love to have Ned Stark as my virtual relationship manager!

“The Iron Bank is always glad to be of service”
Game of Thrones — Iron Banking

Maximise your bot —taking full advantage?

The banks that will be able to leverage this technology to its full potential are those who have already invested heavily in workflow and automation of their back end processes. For those banks who avoided investment in process automation, they may find themselves unable to respond quickly to this new real-time channel in a way that meets their customers expectations.

Robo-advice platforms such as also seem like an obvious candidate for this technology, however, how comfortable you would be investing tens of thousands of pounds with your virtual banking cat is debatable at this stage.

There is no doubt in my mind that chat bots will continue to evolve over the coming years and will become the norm for our interactions with various services. These initial chat bots will also pave the way for next generation verbal interactions using technologies such as the Amazon Echo or future versions of Apple’s Siri. The real question for me is how long before it becomes the norm?

If you’ve any experience or thoughts then I’d love to hear in the comments below.