“Alexa, do I have any money?”

USAA went live Wednesday morning with a virtual assistant that works with Amazon’s Alexa voice interaction device and its corresponding shopping app. Now, USAA members — at least the first 400 that sign up at USAA Labs — can ask Alexa a range of questions about their accounts, balances, spending and transactions, and the bot will answer with specific details from the member’s USAA card and bank accounts.

In so doing, USAA is joining a small group of financial institutions — including Capital One, American Express and several credit unions — that have created Alexa Skills, as the chatbots that work with Alexa are called.

But Darrius Jones, assistant vice president of USAA Labs, says the company’s offering goes a step beyond others. Where other Alexa Skills force users to use only scripted commands — "Alexa, ask Capital One what's my account balance?" — USAA’s lets people say what they want however they want to say it.

Letting members speak naturally and conversationally was critical to its Alexa offering, Jones said.

“We knew we couldn’t use the same speaking structure that we had for our interactive voice response system,” Jones said.

Darrius Jones, assistant vice president of USAA Labs.
“To see someone trust a digital solution with something that indicates they may not be in control of their finances is encouraging," says Darrius Jones, assistant vice president of USAA Labs.

USAA chose virtual assistant software company Clinc to generate Alexa’s responses because of how forgiving its conversational interface is, Jones said.

“You’ve got this ability to speak to it in a messy, convoluted way, and the AI can understand everything,” said Jason Mars, Clinc's CEO. “You feel like you’re speaking to a human in the room.”

As a result, people can have natural conversations with Alexa, he said. For instance, a user could say, “What’s my financial situation looking like?” and the chatbot will understand and retrieve balance information.

Like competitors Kasisto, Personetics and North Side, Clinc’s AI engine has been trained about banking products and services.

Also like the others, Clinc’s engine gives financial institutions complete control over the answers it gives, Mars said.

“We have tools that let you define [how the bot will behave] in strict ways so you know the system is not going to come back and say unpredictable things,” he said.

Early pilot results show people are willing to ask Alexa things they might hesitate to ask a human.

“I have no money, what can I do?” and “I don’t know how to save for college. How do I do that?” are examples of some of the questions that have been asked, Jones said.

“To see someone trust a digital solution with something that indicates they may not be in control of their finances is encouraging,” Jones said. “Now we’ve started the conversation and it’s our responsibility to do something with it, which is the whole purpose of providing spending advice.”

Jones’ team also thought Alexa needed to offer more information than an interactive voice response could, such as real-time insights on spending.

Jones personally started talking regularly to the Alexa Skill and realized he was eating too often at restaurants, rather than preparing food at home.

“It’s frightening how little I understood my own household finances,” he said. “I’m always taking people to lunch and picking my kids up and taking them to dinner. Going out three or four times a week is probably the most I should be doing. Instead I’m going out two or three times a day — it’s unhealthy for me and for my pocketbook.”

The Alexa Skill has helped him curb those habits, he said.

With mom in mind
USAA became interested in creating an Alexa Skill when PYMNTS.com held a five-week competition in which payments and financial services companies were invited to use Alexa’s voice-activated technology to reimagine how consumers interact with them. Jones’ team participated and won in the category “Easiest to Explain to Mom.”

“One thing that dawned on the team and some internal customers is that this could be a compelling way to deliver in-the-moment advice and make people realize what’s going on with their account in a much more conversational way,” Jones said. It could be democratizing. Financial advice often goes to those who need it least, like the wealthy. Alexa could provide advice to everyone, provided they have an Amazon device or download the Amazon shopping app.

Jones declined to share demographics about who among USAA’s members uses Alexa.

“We’re surprised at the people who don’t use it and we’re equally surprised with people who do,” he said. “All the speculation as to who would use it or wouldn’t use it — we were happily surprised, but we were wrong in many cases.” Age and wealth were not big factors, Jones said.

With the pilot, USAA is trying to see if people are genuinely interested in banking this way.

“There’s a belief that the next emerging channel is these conversational interfaces,” Jones said. “Amazon Alexa is one of them. There are a number of other platforms with similar capabilities that you speak or type to. This is just us testing whether or not this channel is one that our members would truly want to interact over.”

Making it work
The new Skill required integration between USAA, Amazon and Clinc.

“We keep all the account data securely at USAA, and we send the relevant pieces of information to respond to the request,” Jones explained. “All the analysis is done using a three-way trust between USAA and Amazon, using Oauth 2.0.”

The project was “one of the easier pilots that I’ve done in my tenure at USAA Labs,” Jones said.

USAA had just made some investments internally to adopt Oauth, a popular standard for tokenized authentication, and connect to third-party applications.

“Amazon does make it relatively easy to integrate into their platform,” Jones said. “And then Clinc came around and this was a challenge they wanted to tackle.”

Though some banks have expressed security concerns about passing customer data through Amazon, USAA hasn’t had any issues.

“We talked about security and privacy concerns,” Jones said. “Like any good partner, they’ve been adhering to our rules. Everything we have is legal and compliant. We also have a privacy pledge to our members, so we’re very transparent about what types of data we’ll share versus what types won’t be shared.”

A registered voice PIN prevents a random person from asking Alexa questions about someone else’s account. USAA has held off enabling money transfer via Alexa because it’s still working on the right security model for it.

Jones is also unconcerned about Amazon poaching customers.

“Based on where they sit in the food chain, I’m sure they know a lot about our membership,” he said. “I don’t know that not partnering with someone will stop them from knowing as much as they already do know. So far, they’ve given us no reason not to partner with them.”

Editor at Large Penny Crosman welcomes feedback at penny.crosman@sourcemedia.com.