U.S. Bank rolls out virtual assistant

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U.S. Bank says it will soon launch a virtual assistant called Smart Assistant.

The assistant, which will be built into the Minneapolis bank's mobile app, will let customers bank by speaking or texting requests. It will be rolled out to customers next week.

The timing is unusual for two reasons.

One, many banks that rolled out virtual assistants or chatbots a few years ago have quietly dropped them due to lack of customer interest. An exception is Bank of America’s Erica, which now has 14 million users.

Two, one might expect extracurricular projects like chatbots to be put aside in favor of more technologies built to meet immediate, pandemic-related demands such as Paycheck Protection Program loan software.

According to Ankit Bhatt, the bank's chief digital officer for consumer lines, adoption of the mobile app has been strong, especially during the pandemic. It has become the primary channel of interaction, he said.

Ankit Bhatt, senior vice president and chief digital officer for consumer, U.S. Bank
"The efficiency of voice is something we're very excited about," says Ankit Bhatt, senior vice president and chief digital officer for consumer services at U.S. Bank.

The bank had already been investing heavily in its mobile app, he said, and this is a continuation of that investment.

“COVID just accelerated that right to the next level,” Bhatt said. “It wasn't like we needed to prove out why we need to do this.”

The bank decided early on that the assistant needed to be voice first, Bhatt said. The microphone button is dominant, and the keyboard is secondary.

“There are 90 million smartphone users that have a device with voice capability,” Bhatt pointed out. “So it was really important for us to build a mobile app experience that leverages that built-in smartphone capability.”

The average person can type 40 words per minute, but speak 130 words per minute, according to Bhatt.

“The efficiency of voice is something we were very excited about,” he said.

The bank asked customers what they might use a virtual assistant for, and employees read through call center transcripts to identify customers’ most common issues. What it found is that customers generally want to know their account balances, check on recent transactions, get help with payments and disable lost or stolen cards.

Customers can use the Smart Assistant to send payments through Zelle, to transfer money between accounts using account nicknames rather than numbers, ask about upcoming bills, obtain transaction and spending information, and lock and unlock cards.

The virtual assistant has been taught to understand the context of the question the customer is asking. So a customer asking for the balance on a credit card could also say, "OK, how much did I spend at Target?" The assistant would know the customer is still inquiring about the credit card.

Smart Assistant can also help users find things within U.S. Bank’s mobile app.

“In the past year, we’ve built more than 300 features in our mobile app,” Bhatt said. “Every month we release new features. So this is a great way for customers to discover things that they might not do every day.”

U.S. Bank designed the customer experience and the business logic of the virtual assistant in-house, Bhatt said. It has also built application programming interfaces to connect the virtual assistant with other systems in the future such as Amazon Alexa.

It used natural language processing technology from Clinc to understand customers’ speech.

Accuracy is critical to any virtual assistant — if it gives wrong answers, customers will quickly lose patience.

Bhatt said the bank has been measuring how well the assistant understands questions and helps customers as it has tested the technology with employees since October.

A unique aspect of the new virtual assistant is its attention to people with disabilities.

A team of internal accessibility consultants co-created the virtual assistant. Some members of the team have disabilities themselves. People with cognitive, learning, visual and physical disabilities were included in at-home usability studies. Christina Granquist, who is blind, helped incorporate voice interaction features that people who are visually impaired have used for years, such as larger text and options to speak or text an answer.

“At the end of the day, designing for disabilities actually results in a better product, not just for people with disabilities, but also for everyone,” Bhatt said.

Bhatt hopes the Smart Assistant will help U.S. Bank drive deeper engagement with customers and higher task-completion rates because speaking an answer is more efficient than typing it.

The Smart Assistant will incorporate the artificial-inteligence-derived insights the bank gets from Personetics. This technology uses artificial intelligence to predict when customers are likely to have a negative balance, for instance, or when they might want a car loan.

U.S. Bank has been developing virtual assistant technology for years. In 2013 it launched a voice assistant called Nina for some card customers; that technology was developed by Nuance.

In 2018, it was the first to roll out voice banking on all three major home assistants: Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google's Assistant.

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Mobile banking Virtual assistants Voice Recognition Digital banking Digital Banking 2020