Turning up the volume on Alexa

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Devotees of Amazon’s Echo smart speaker may have no qualms about asking Alexa, its built-in voice assistant, to catch them up on news in the morning, set a timer while preparing dinner, or lull them to sleep at night with soothing sounds.

But asking Alexa to delve into their bank accounts is another story.

Though smart speakers have become more popular — in 2019, eMarketer estimated that 111.8 million people in the U.S. use a voice assistant at least monthly on a smartphone, smart speaker or other device, including Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant and others — banking through a smart speaker has not quite taken off.

A handful of institutions, including Ally Financial, Capital One and U.S. Bancorp, continue to work on and refine their Alexa “skills,” or apps that allow customers to interact with their institution by conversing with an Alexa-enabled device. And others, including Eastern Bank in Boston, have launched new skills in recent months.

Surveys consistently find that Amazon Echo dominates the smart speaker market over Google and Apple.

All told, at least a dozen banks and credit card issuers have released Alexa skills. At minimum, these apps let bank customers check their balances and review recent transactions by uttering a few key words within earshot of their Alexa-enabled device. More sophisticated skills go further, allowing customers to pay their credit card bills, transfer money between accounts, verify bill due dates, locate the nearest branch or ATM or dig up the bank’s routing number.

Some banks are betting that as this technology becomes more embedded in customers’ homes and lives, consumers will naturally transition to banking on these devices as well.

“When bank statements first went online, it freaked people out, but now we can’t imagine not doing things digitally,” said Juan Romera, a so-called product evangelist at Abe.ai, which helps financial institutions implement conversational banking. “Once you get used to doing everything on these devices, it’s incredibly convenient.”

For now, “most folks are kind of meh,” said Emmett Higdon, director of digital banking at Javelin.

A 2018 report he wrote for Javelin found that despite the popularity of smart speakers, consumers have been hesitant to adopt banking by voice.

Convenience is a major factor.

“The biggest challenge is, for the most part, it’s quicker and easier to go through the mobile banking app on your phone,” Higdon said. “With a thumbprint or face ID, it only takes a couple of seconds to get into the app, and it’s something you’ve been using for years.”

Still, some banks see the promise in building an Alexa skill now and continuing to polish its features.

U.S. Bank was one of the earliest adopters. It debuted its Alexa skill in September 2017, and it followed with banking capabilities on Google and Apple devices later. Its Alexa skill is the most robust among these platforms — customers can catch up on their mortgage and credit card bill due dates and pay their U.S. Bank credit cards, for example. The most popular requests the bank receives on all three platforms are spot checks of account balances.

U.S. Bank is finding customers of all ages are interested in voice interaction, according to Gareth Gaston, executive vice president of omnichannel.

“When we relaunched our app last year, we learned from customers, including older customers, that they would prefer to talk to the app rather than navigate through it,” said Gareth Gaston, executive vice president of omnichannel at U.S. Bank. There are hundreds of tasks one can complete with the app, and the ability to speak a command helps cut through the clutter, he said.

“This is a new way of doing what people have been doing in banking for hundreds of years — just talking about what their needs are,” Gaston said.

For Ally Bank, which debuted its Alexa skill in late 2017, voice banking is one of the many ways it is trying to communicate with customers, whether that involves using artificial intelligence or more traditional means. Besides balance inquiries and recent transactions, Ally customers can access a suite of services through its Alexa skill, including making transfers to other Ally accounts or registered accounts at other banks, reviewing the latest account rates, and converting the price of an item into the hours of work required to pay for it, also known as Ally CurrenSee.

Eastern Bank, which has branches in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, quietly launched its Alexa skill last November. Bank officials saw it as a way to feel out what their customers want from voice banking.

“While voice banking is probably not fully there today, we wanted to let our customers experiment, but also learn from them,” said Mark Leonard, senior vice president and chief architect at Eastern.

The institution decided to start small by enabling inquiries about account balances, recent transactions, nearest branch or ATM and the status of bill payments. Once bank officials get a better idea of what customers are asking for, they plan to add more complexity to their skill such as, perhaps, the ability to transfer money. “We wanted to get to the market quickly,” Leonard said. “We weren’t necessarily trying to hit a home run, but to get in the field so we can start to collect feedback.”

For instance, the bank is learning from the way customers are phrasing the questions they pose to Alexa.

“The cool thing about voice processing with Alexa is you can ask it the way you think it, such as, ‘How much did I spend last week?’” Leonard said. “If customers ask for things in ways we weren’t expecting, we can quickly learn from that.”

Still, some customers draw a line between asking Alexa to store a to-do list and sharing their financial transactions. When it comes to security, banks with Alexa skills assure customers that login information isn’t shared with Amazon.

Customers are also asked to create a numerical passcode to recite before interacting with their Alexa bank skill, although not all institutions require this for every action.

Of course, anyone who overhears the passcode could theoretically access a user’s account.

“It’s the same concept as looking over your shoulder while using a mobile app or leaving your computer on,” Romera said. “I think people will get more and more comfortable using these devices, but it’s still early.”

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