Consumers use bots to reduce — or eliminate — bank fees

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Call it the revenge of the frustrated bank customer.

Retail account holders may struggle to get a real person on the phone, chafe at the limitations of online banking chat services, or be made to feel bad when they opt to use a teller for a transaction that could be handled at an ATM.

But now consumers can flip the script by employing automation against their banks. The trend is presenting a new set of challenges for the industry, which has long predicated its business models on the assumption that interacting with the bank requires at least some effort by the customer.

Startups such as Earny, which is headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., and San Francisco-based Cushion are using technology to help consumers interact with their banks, and sometimes collect refunds on customers’ behalf.

The odds of any particular startup making it big are small, of course. But no matter what happens to these companies, the technology they are employing will continue to develop, and banks will need to respond, industry experts say.

“Stuff like this is going to force banks’ hands,” said Peter Wannemacher, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Cushion, which was founded in 2016 and is currently operating in beta, uses a bot to negotiate bank fees.

Banks have long been willing to reduce or waive certain fees — late fees on credit card bills are one example — for customers who ask. But making that phone call can be a hassle, and many consumers end up paying fees unnecessarily.

“The bank makes you feel very bad about yourself for asking for your own money back,” said Cushion CEO Paul Kesserwani.

To use Cushion, consumers connect their credit cards and bank accounts to the service, and then authorize fee negotiations.

Interactions between consumer and the bot take place on Facebook Messenger. The bot, which scans the customer’s accounts for fees, uses online chat and secure messaging to communicate with the banks.

The user experience is designed to require little effort by the consumer. They cannot enter text; they merely choose from buttons that are presented to them.

Cushion says that 83% of the people on whose behalf it has sought money have gotten some funds back.

“We want to show them that you can trust a bot to do the work for you,” Kesserwani said.

Cushion plans eventually to keep 25% of the money it recovers on behalf of its users, though it is not currently charging them.

The firm’s website mentions a wide array of charges that banks rely on — late fees, overdraft fees, wire transfer fees, ATM fees, monthly service fees, foreign transaction fees, minimum balance fees and even credit card interest charges.

Kesserwani said that banks currently do not know that they’re interacting with Cushion’s bot rather than their customers. But he added that the company is planning to make changes that will require users to authorize the specific text of messages before they get sent to a bank, in order to make clear that the messages are from the bank’s customers.

Such a change could make it harder for banks to complain that they were misled.

“We’re not anti-bank by any means. We’re just focused on helping consumers waste less money, save more, and live financially healthier lives,” Kesserwani said in a follow-up email.

“In that same vein, we feel like we are doing banks a huge favor by increasing consumer satisfaction and decreasing user churn,” he added.

Earny, which launched in 2016, is focusing on a different way to deliver money from banks to U.S. consumers.

The company has automated the process of filing claims under credit card price-protection policies. Such policies can generate refunds for the consumer if the price of a specific purchase drops within a specified period of time.

For example, if a cardholder pays $60 for a pair of shoes that drops to $50 a month later, she may be entitled to $10 from the credit card company. Earny does the work of scouring the internet for price reductions and asking the card issuer for money back.

“The idea is to give consumers the confidence to shop,” said Earny CEO Oded Vakrat. “We will monitor prices.”

Users access Earny through a mobile phone app. They register, enter their credit card information, and provide account credentials for retailers where they make frequent purchases. When Earny generates a refund for a user, it keeps 25% of the funds.

Large credit card issuers appear to be responding to Earny in different ways.

Later this month, JPMorgan Chase plans to remove price protection from its Ritz Carlton and Marriott business cards, as well as all Chase brand cards, including Sapphire and Freedom. The bank acknowledged that the use of new tools has shifted the way that consumers interact with some benefits.

“We are always evaluating our products to offer a great mix of rewards, benefits and experiences that provide the most value to our customers,” Chase spokeswoman Lauren Ryan said in an email.

Meanwhile, Earny said that its service works with Citigroup credit cards, so the startup has been encouraging its users to pay with plastic from Citi.

Citi, which launched its Price Rewind service in 2012, said that it has taken steps to address third-party involvement in order to protect customers, as well as to provide maximum value to customers.

Industry analysts offered a range of opinions about how banks should and will respond to startups that use automation on behalf of bank customers.

Daniel Latimore, a senior vice president at Celent, said that if such services become more popular, he would expect banks to develop policies that govern their use.

But Mark Schwanhausser, the director of digital banking at Javelin Strategy & Research, said that banks should be wary about cracking down on services that help consumers to avoid fees that may be perceived as unfair.

“Nobody wants to be a financial partner with somebody who’s sticking hands in their pocket and taking money out,” Schwanhausser said.

Wannemacher at Forrester Research argued that banks should explore offering these types of automated products to their own customers. He said that the ability to negotiate fees at other banks could one day be incorporated into virtual assistants like Erica from Charlotte-based Bank of America.

“I think bank executives should be inspired by this type of service,” Wannemacher said.

Already, banks are experimenting with the use of automation to help their retail customers reduce certain unnecessary expenses. Wells Fargo, for example, is testing a service that allows consumers to see all of their subscription services in one place online.

Over time, the rise of bots that perform work on behalf of consumers will cut into banks’ profitability, predicted Lex Sokolin, a partner at Autonomous Research.

“If an agent can quickly and easily switch accounts to the highest interest rate online banks, then customers are not stuck with a low-performing product,” he said in an email.

“I imagine a world where customers will have many virtual agents working on their behalf, and financial institutions will similarly have enterprise bots on their side.”

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Artificial intelligence Credit cards Consumer banking Fee income Fintech JPMorgan Chase Citigroup