Bank chatbots work coronavirus into the conversation

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In late January the team at Kasisto, the company behind the conversational artificial-intelligence platform Kai, noticed a new topic creeping into dialogues between its virtual assistant and bank customers in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Early on, people were saying ‘What the F is corona?’ or ‘Explain COVID to me,’ ” said Zor Gorelov, Kasisto's CEO. “But the nature of those queries changed dramatically over time.”

Kasisto first noticed pandemic-related requests in North American client conversations as early as Feb. 14, but mentions ramped up globally in mid-March. As countries went into lockdown, the questions posed to Kai veered from branch hours and safety into financial-hardship territory, such as requests for lower interest rates, payment deferrals or fee waivers.

At the same time, contact centers at banks quickly became overwhelmed with higher volumes of calls.

Zor Gorelov, CEO of Kasisto
Zor Gorelov, CEO at Kasisto, said his company is offering its "COVID skill" to its Kai Consumer Banking virtual assistant clients for free. The virtual assistant will be able to answer questions about how coronavirus is impacting bank operations.

To divert volume from swamped phone lines — and ensure that customers seeking support from AI-powered conversations found the answers they needed — Kasisto and other firms that deploy intelligent assistants to financial institutions started drawing on their data about common new queries to equip their bots with the ability to handle basic questions about coronavirus, branch operations, hardship-relief options and applications to the Paycheck Protection Program.

Their goal is to handle these inquiries as seamlessly and naturally as possible, so customers can avoid clicking through a maze of web pages or feeling so stymied that they resort to the phone lines.

Although few partnerships have been publicly announced, virtual-assistant providers say financial institutions are slowly signing on — and they are working with their bank clients, including TD Bank and Manulife Bank in the case of Kasisto, to turn on these capabilities within days.

“Even those customer population segments that have not been using digital banking are being forced to use it now,” said Gualberto Camacho, vice president of product at Clinc, a conversational AI software provider. "Every one of our customers is making a lot of effort to make sure customers are aware of self-service options. Part of that digital strategy includes conversational AI.”

Chatting about coronavirus

After analyzing tens of thousands of utterances culled from banks around the world, Kasisto built a skill, or an add-on feature, to enhance its Kai Consumer Banking virtual assistant.

The skill can answer basic questions about coronavirus and more specific questions about a bank’s branch operations and policies. Using self-service data analysis tools provided by Kasisto, the banks can control what information they want their assistant to provide.

“We provide the brain that understands the request and banks can design and define their own responses,” said Gorelov.

Kasisto is supplying its “COVID skill” to its customers for free. Two North American clients that have taken it live are Manulife Bank in Canada and TD Bank in the U.S. The company says other institutions will roll out the skill over the next two weeks.

On the TD Bank app, for example, the virtual assistant offers a few topics at the top of the chat window, including Personal Banking Relief, Small Business Relief and COVID-19 Response. Clicking on the Small Business Relief topic yields a few bullet points about support options and a link to submit a request.

Banks can choose whether they want to complete full conversational workflows in the bot (such as enabling customers to request and obtain a payment deferral without leaving the conversation) or to redirect a customer to the appropriate web page.

Similarly, Clinc is building “COVID bots” to address common questions that have come up among its banks’ contact centers and in conversations with Finie, its prebuilt virtual assistant, including those about branch hours and payment assistance.

Like Kasisto’s product, the bots are customizable. Clinc creates AI models to understand different topics and make inferences, and works with its bank clients to come up with appropriate responses.

So far, Clinc is designing these bots for a top-five and a top-10 bank in the U.S., as well as one international client.

IBM’s Watson Assistant can also be trained to answer basic questions about coronavirus. The Watson Assistant can deliver information about how coronavirus is affecting the bank itself, such as new branch policies. Plugging in either of those capabilities takes a few days.

Enabling Watson to handle more complex questions, such as how to access special payment terms, would normally take several months, said Anthony Lipp, global strategy director for banking and financial markets at IBM. But for one client, IBM managed to add this capability in five days.

“Very few of us have had sleep in the last month,” Lipp said. “This has forced us to become extremely efficient.”

Focusing on certain needs

Meanwhile, some companies are gearing their products toward meeting a specific need.

Finn AI, a conversational banking technology provider that works with medium-to-large regional banks, credit unions and digital banks in North America, is augmenting its chatbot’s ability to support loan deferrals. The company has heard from some of its Canadian and U.S. customers that deferral requests are 30% of their calls.

“We do really well with questions about eligibility because we have that already built into more standard products,” said Rob Reardon, product manager at Finn AI. “Same with questions about how the program works, what happens if they participate, does their balance increase and does interest still accrue.”

The company will debut an informational component shortly, so users can ask more general questions about eligibility and which products are covered. The next step is for users to complete the entire enrollment process in a debt relief program for any loan type entirely through the bot.

These enhancements will be free for existing customers.

“I think a conversational interface is the ideal way to enroll in one of these programs,” said Reardon. “A web forum might not be as easy to navigate as a conversational-type experience. With conversational AI, you can be more empathetic.”

Interface, the creator of a preauthentication customer AI assistant dubbed Ava, recently launched a chatbot tailored to an even more specific need — helping small-business owners gauge their eligibility for Small Business Administration relief funding, including the Paycheck Protection Program.

“A lot of people are getting confused and calling banks to check if they are eligible,” said Srinivas Njay, CEO of Interface. “This is not a good use of a bank’s time because it should focus on processing as many loans as possible.”

Interface trained its chatbot to guide customers through choosing the right loan, figuring out their eligibility and proceeding with an application, providing help along the way.

The company says it has received interest from more than 115 banks and credit unions of all sizes. It is charging $2,000 a month for its chatbot, which it says it can install within a day.

In all, conversational AI providers believe that as they refine their tools and financial institutions sign on, customers will be better served than waiting on hold.

“In the last crisis, banks were part of the problem and had a villain role,” said Jake Tyler, CEO of Finn AI. “With this crisis, it’s very different. Banks are integral to solutions. But it will really be those banks with better digital capabilities that are able to be the heroes.”

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Coronavirus Virtual assistants Artificial intelligence IBM Watson