Full-service virtual assistants have become the gold standard for mobile banking apps, but they are uncommon even among the nation’s leading banks.
Some that claim to be offering virtual assistants to their mobile banking users are actually providing a high-end chatbot, says Susan Foulds, managing director at Keynova Group, which publishes a biannual study assessing mobile banking apps. “Only a few banks have really rolled out virtual assistants,” she says.
Among the 17 banks in Keynova’s “Mobile Banker Scorecard,” there are just three true virtual assistants: Bank of America’s “Erica,” U.S. Bank’s “Smart Assistant” and “Truist Assist.”
With the other banks, “you don’t see the advanced skills that you do” with the automated help available at these three, says Foulds.
But more virtual assistants are coming, Foulds says. One example is “Fargo,” which Wells Fargo plans to launch in the second quarter. It’ll be powered by Google Cloud AI.
Some might suggest including Capital One’s “Eno” virtual assistant, but Foulds makes a distinction here. She says Eno’s advanced features are deployed with credit card holders specifically — not surprising given the nature of Capital One’s business mix. Keynova’s study focuses on mobile banking apps, rather than apps targeted to specialized areas.
How Virtual Assistants Change the Mobile Banking Experience
By Keynova’s definition, true virtual assistants incorporate artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and natural language processing. The latter goes beyond matching questions and potential answers to the more-nuanced ability to “weigh” how best to answer questions posed in a jumbled way — as humans are wont to do.
Of all the automated help that consumers can access, virtual assistants are the closest experience there is to dealing with a human customer service representative, Foulds says.
“The point is that you won’t just be tapping away on the phone. It will become a different way of navigating.”
— Susan Foulds, Keynova
What makes this so important to mobile banking? As these apps add more functionality, navigating them becomes more challenging. Users often struggle with trying to figure out where and how to perform specific tasks.
Virtual assistants change the mobile banking experience completely.
“You will no longer have to manually navigate to what you want to do on the app,” Foulds says. “You’ll just ask the virtual assistant to set up a transfer or set up recurring payments. Or you’ll ask it to show you your most recent deposits.”
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How Receptive Are Banking Consumers to Automated Help?
The virtual assistants that are out there now are relatively new, but they will become table stakes soon enough. They are coming along at a time when consumers are increasingly willing to forgo human help.
When Wells Fargo announced its plan to launch Fargo, the bank also released sponsored research from Ipsos in which thousands of consumers answered questions about their use of virtual assistants generally.
A key finding: 65% of Millennial and Gen Z respondents said they prefer to use a virtual assistant for customer service needs instead of waiting for a customer service rep to become available.
The survey also found that three out of five respondents across all demographic groups said they had become more receptive to using virtual assistants in the wake of the pandemic, when many services had to be shunted into digital alternatives.
But respondents also recognized that human contact has benefits, including the ability to understand people’s emotions (cited by 62%) and the ability to field complex questions (58%).
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Ability to Offer Proactive Support Sets Virtual Assistants Apart
Besides their use as a navigation alternative, virtual assistants offer another key benefit: proactive support, Foulds says. At their best, they don’t just respond, they initiate.
She gives an example of a customer with an automated payment coming up. Say for some reason a lower-than-usual balance makes it possible that the consumer will be overdrawn if that scheduled payment is processed without further action. A true virtual assistant will look at anticipated cash inflow to the account and may determine to proactively warn the customer about the need for action.
Still, virtual assistants sometimes need backup.
One factor that continues to be important, even as technology improves, is easy access to live support. The more seamless it is to make that transition, the better, Foulds says. Ideally consumers should be able to move to the live channel without having to authenticate who they are all over again, especially since they would already be logged into the mobile banking app, she says.
Truist Assist stands out from others for making quick and easy connections to humans, she adds.
The Keynova study concentrates on apps offered by full-service banks because, Foulds says, their apps handle a much wider range of functions than apps offered by fintechs and neobanks. Their big menu of options is all the more impressive, she says, because many banks are still dealing with the challenge of siloed legacy data processing systems.
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The Automated Assistance Mobile Banking Apps Offer
Here’s an overview of how Keynova defines other types of digital assistance.
Basic chatbot service with programmed answers: This is all digital, with no natural language functionality involved. The user enters a question or a snippet of text and, if it matches something in the bot’s database, receives back a canned answer. Foulds calls this “a glorified FAQ.” The text never varies.
Chatbots with two-way messaging: This goes beyond the FAQ approach, roping in a human if the user indicates the answer wasn’t suitable. Typically the answer doesn’t come right away. The best of these allows the user to exit for the time being and check back later, rather than being on the chat equivalent of “terminal hold.”
Live text chat: This typically has a live person on the other end of the conversation typing answers. “That can be a slow haul,” Foulds says.
Keynova’s study found that there was a nearly even split between basic chatbot service with programmed answers and those offering two-way messaging. More than half provide live chat assistance.
Smaller institutions that are presently a page or two behind the larger banks that Keynova studies have an advantage in that the big banks have broken a lot of the ground. Foulds says that she expects to see virtual assistants adopted in this league as well. She says they can regard that technology as a best practice. While in the past they didn’t have the control to implement such features because of the limitations imposed by their core processor or service provider, she says, “today they have more opportunities to pull together their own components.”