What's holding back voice banking

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Amazon’s Alexa is asked repeatedly in tech demos, “What’s my balance?”

But for voice banking to take off with customers, maybe that’s the wrong question right now.

Thanks to Alexa, Siri and Google, voice assistant devices have rapidly multiplied — 47 million U.S. adults now own voice-responsive speakers, according to one recent study. Yet customers don't appear to want to talk about bank accounts with such devices, according to new research from Javelin Strategy & Research.

More than half of 10,000 consumers surveyed by Javelin said they weren’t interested in getting account balances and transaction details using Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. (The survey data was collected in June and will be published in a report later this year.)

The tepid interest demonstrates that it’s still early days for the technology and more work is needed before customers are comfortable conducting financial transactions without any screen to review, observers said.

“It’s very rudimentary tech right now,” said Robb Gaynor, North America head of digital at Malauzai, a Finastra company. “You have to program it. This stuff doesn’t naturally learn. We’re writing code so that it’s better at understanding what people want it to do.”

The company considered releasing a “lightweight” Alexa skill but then decided that the technology was not mature enough. “We’re at 75% effectiveness right now,” Gaynor said. “I worked for Intuit. Their goal was 95% effectiveness. People wouldn’t adopt something until it worked 19 out of 20 times.”

Gaynor said his firm is focusing on building the code necessary to emulate the natural language processing that customers want. The digital banking platform is 18 months into a project that it plans to launch in the fourth quarter of this year.

“Both coding to train the voice capability and activities like defining phrases in Alexa are examples of how we have to do stuff around the edges of artificial intelligence to pull off voice banking,” Gaynor said. “We tend to have to code when we encounter a less mature product. Alexa is more mature and gives you tools like the phase-defining tool, where other technologies require coding.”

Other providers said they were still slowly building capabilities for voice banking.

“We want to get a really strong foundation and get an initial base of users engaged and using the technology so that our banks can see and feel value from the application,” said Douglas Brown, senior vice president and group executive at FIS Mobile and Digital One.

This month, FIS is releasing a platform that will provide information and research about user accounts as well as bank products and services.

“Then we’ll introduce some subsequent capabilities," Brown said. "Rather than go for a massive big bang and build everything at once, we believe we have a better strategy and practical use for the market to introduce in phases.”

With computing moving toward voice technology inputs, the interactions between people and devices will evolve, said Emmett Higdon, director of mobile for Javelin.

“The car is a huge opportunity for voice banking,” Higdon said. “We will actually see that move quickly to a car interface because of all the cocooning we do in our cars on a daily basis.”

“For most of the voice interactions we have, however, the payback the customer is getting is not worth the pain of getting there,” he acknowledged.

Still, banks and financial institutions will continue to test the technology, if just to remain ahead of its wider adoption.

Jojo Seva, chief information officer of NEFCU, a $3 billion-asset credit union in Westbury, N.Y., began to research voice banking after Capital One made it possible for its customers to pay credit card bills through Alexa.

“I recognize that the technology is not for everybody. Just like online banking isn’t for everybody when it first started,” Seva said. “As customers installed these devices in their homes, the more they are going to explore our voice banking channel.”

Banks would do well to keep tabs on their customers' usage of voice devices, said Mike Zell, vice president of digital at BECU in Tukwila, Wash.

“We found that about 50% of the members that we surveyed had an Alexa and around 70% of those folks said they were interested,” Zell said.

Although being in the Seattle area where Amazon is headquartered is an added benefit of investing in voice, it was not the key reason the $18.6 billion-asset credit union decided to leverage the voice banking technology that Fiserv offers.

“The way we’re looking at it, we wanted to get that capability out in the marketplace, do a little a bit around experimentation and understand how members would use it,” Zell said.

Gaynor expects voice banking to become meaningful to customers when it can have a conversation in context. In response to, “What’s my balance?” Gaynor said, a voice bot should seek to clarify, “In checking or savings?”

Gaynor says cross-device communication is also necessary for customers to adopt voice banking at scale. “When you think about it, voice-to-voice is not all that cool,” he said. “But voice-to-screen, voice-to-computer, voice-to-printer — everything working in an ecosystem is a very different world.”

To make this kind of communication possible, each device has to be in “statelessness” or always alert and not having to be prompted to open, Gaynor said. “So the mobile app on the mobile phone kind of waits for an [voice assistant] instruction like, ‘Show the nearest ATM when the app is next accessed,’ and when the user fires up the app, the map shows up.”

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Artificial intelligence Machine learning Virtual assistants Customer experience Client communications Fintech Amazon Google