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By Karen Wheeler, Vice President and Country Manager UK, Affinion

It seems the Age of the Robots may be closer than we think. Major steps forward in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in recent years has led to chatbots becoming an everyday part of the experience that companies offer customers – particularly in banking.

This is leading to predictions of significant change in the workplace; McKinsey Global Institute estimates almost half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, due to advances in robotics and automation. Meanwhile, a recent report by CACI, predicted that consumer visits to retail bank branches will drop by 36% between 2017 and 2022, with mobile becoming the main point of contact. The report also predicted that the average consumer will only visit their branch four times a year by 2022; a figure that currently stands at seven. As consumers look to contact their bank via other platforms, they’ll need to reach and interact with customers in new non-human ways.

For businesses, the appeal of AI, robotics and chatbots lies in operational efficiencies and cost-savings – as well as driving relevant interactions with customers. A global report by Accenture found 79 per cent of banking professionals agree that AI will revolutionise the way they gain information from and interact with customers.

There is no doubt that AI technology is benefiting both customers and businesses alike; but there will always be moments where human interaction is needed. So where can AI fit into financial services providers’customer engagement strategies?

Moving from functional to friendly

Until recently, chatbots very much had a functional role; such as asking the required security questions before customers are put through to a human employee. Now, AI is becoming increasingly sophisticated and able to respond to a number of customer enquiries. Take the Swedish bank, Swedbank, for example, whose web assistant Nina now has an average of 30,000 conversations per month and can handle more than 350 different customer questions. This level of customer service is what many businesses are aiming for, as they seek to emulate the breadth and depth of the human customer service via chatbot functionality.

For consumers, Amazon’s Alexa andApple’s Siri are now everyday companions; helping them to write emails, order shopping online and play music all through voice command. Customer adoption is high; it’s estimated that Siri handles over 2bn commands a week, and 20 per cent of Google searches on Android-powered handsets in America are inputted by voice. It’s clear that customers are embracing AI technology that can bring real benefits to their lives.

In the coming months and years, I predict chatbots will increasingly move beyond a static role to one where they offer real engagement with customers’ lifestyle needs. For example, Bank of America is launching Erica, a voice and text enabled chatbot that will help customers ‘make smarter banking decisions’. Erica will identify areas where customers can save more money and facilitate the paying of bills within the bank’s app.

The digital insurer Lemonade is already impressing in this area; at the start of 2017, its virtual assistant Jim set a world record as it reviewed, processed and paid a claim in 3 seconds – with no paperwork. If financial services companies can offer the technology that brings cost and time-saving benefits to consumers, this could lead to increased engagement, loyalty and advocacy.

Out-pacing the human service

Where we can expect to see AI technology adding real value to the customer experience is its ability to instantly react to customer behaviour – and then adapt the service accordingly. By live recording data in real time and faster than a traditional customer service representative can, this allows for more data to be analysed and the potential to shape future interactions. Responsive technology can also mean avoiding incurring customers’ wrath, by overwriting pre-scheduled customer communications.

Can emotional intelligence be programmed?

The value of the human customer service lies in employees’ abilities to pick up on the customer’s emotional state, for example the volume and tone of their voice. Employees can adapt and respond accordingly; working hard to placate the customer if they are unhappy. Although it’s clear chatbot technology is evolving to a point where it can offer multiple services, the big question around its role in the customer experience is whether it will ever be so advanced that it can understand the intricacies of human behaviour.

The answer may well be yes. A team of computer scientists in China recently announced the development of an Emotional Chatting Machine (ECM), which is able to produce factual answers whilst also incorporating emotions such as happiness, sadness or disgust into its conversation. The ECM is fuelled by an “emotion classifying” algorithm that learned to detect emotion from 23,000 posts taken from the Chinese social media site Weibo. The research found that 61 per cent of humans who tested the machine favoured the emotional versions to the neutral chatbot.

Although this ECM is far from widespread, this is a big step towards evolving chatbots from two-dimensional, limited roles to one capable of emotional intelligence.

 How can businesses prepare to meet the needs of millennials?

According to a global poll by location-based mobile advertising company Retale, 86 per centof millennialssaid that brands should use chatbots to promote deals, products, and services, and nearly all of the 58 per cent of respondents who had interacted with a chatbot on social said that it was a positive experience.The research also found 53 per cent of those who had interacted with chatbots said that they needed to be more “accurate”. It’s clear that customers have high expectations when it comes to the service chatbots should offer.

This means that customer-facing organisations need to work hard to not only meet the needs of consumers today, but plan ahead and lay the foundations to meet the needs of millennials in 10 years’ time. To do this, they should take a multi-channel approach and consider the platforms consumers are engaging with on an everyday basis.

The future of chatbots lies in using AI to bring real-life benefits to consumers. For example, reminding a consumer they need to update their insurance policy and providing recommendations based on their lifestyle, or automatically ordering a taxi to the airport as soon as a flight has been booked. Chatbots in the future may not even require a screen or device; Gartner predicts that “interacting with chatbots won’t require any particular setup; the technology will simply understand and do as the human asks.” If banks are able to invest in the technology that can make customers’ lives easier with rich, intelligent interactions, they may well be on the path to deeper engagement and loyalty.

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