Chat Bots: Savior or Disintermediator?

AI is becoming increasingly interesting to bankers.  Last year I wrote a blog about “Assistant as an App”, looking at how concierge apps like MaiKai and Penny are offering up AI-driven financial management services.  My colleague Dan Latimore also recently posted a blog on  AI and its impact.

The emergence of chat bots within popular messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Slack, Kik, and WeChat similarly has the potential to shift how customers interact with financial institutions. Chat bots offer incredible scale at a pretty cheap price, making adoption potentially explosive. Facebook messenger, for example, has almost one billion active users per month. WhatsApp (soon to launch chat bots) has about the same.  These apps offer some extremely high engagement, and with app downloads decreasing, users are spending more time on fewer apps. According to Tech Crunch, 80% of the time spent on a mobile device is typically split between 3 to 5 apps

Chat bots give the bank the ability to automatically appear in almost all of the most used apps in the world.  The opportunity with digital assistants is immense, and given the nature of bank transactions, it’s not hard to imagine chat bots becoming a widely used engagement method.  Most of banking is heavily rules-based, so the processes are often standard.  Frequent banking requests are pretty straightforward (e.g. ‘send this person X amount of money’ or ‘transfer x amount from savings to checking’).  Bank-owned chat bots are also more built for purpose than some of the multi-purpose third-party products on the market, making the functional scope targetted. While chat bots are still very early days, it won't be long before these kinds of interactions are accessible and the norm. Bank of America already has one; many others have plans or pilots.

This video (skip to 7:30) shows what an advanced chat bot might be able to accomplish. The image below from the Chat Bot Magazine is another conceptual banking use case.  The possibilities are compelling. 

 

 

 

 

But while the opportunity with digital assistants is enormous, banks must be aware of how this affects their current ongoing digital strategy. For example, if chat bots overcome the hype and become a long lasting method for accessing financial services, then what effect will that have on traditional banking apps?  Will chat bots make it foolish to invest large sums of money in dedicated mobile apps? 

For all the promise this technology brings, banks need to be aware that this could be a step towards front-end disintermediation. The threat of tech companies (or other large retailers) stepping in to grab banking licenses and compete directly with incumbents was short lived.  The more realistic scenario was always relegating core banking functions to a utility on the backend of a slickly designed user interface created by a fintech startup.  The incumbents lose the engagement, even if they are facilitating the transactions.

Are chat bots a step towards front-end disintermediation, or are they an extension of the bank’s main app?  If you believe that chat bots are a stepping stone (or companion product) towards a world where the best UI is no UI, and where AI evolves to the point of offering significant functional value, then banks could be at risk.

This isn’t a call to hysteria by any means, nor am I calling chat bots wolves in sheep’s clothing, but banks need to be aware of the potential impact. As voice or message-based interactions become the norm, they will have an effect on a bank’s dedicated mobile app.  In this environment, the mobile app will need to evolve to become something different; non-transactional.

Chatbots will only further fragment the customer journey, requiring an even clearer understanding of how consumers are choosing to handle their finances and make transactions. Banks need to start thinking about how chat bots and AI fit into a long-term digital channels strategy, one that doesn’t handcuff the institution into a no-win proposition of competitive disadvantage versus wilful disruption.

Globalisation: External Forces Driving Corporate Growth and Expansion

Treasury management plays an important role in a corporation’s globalisation efforts especially in the areas of cash management, banking, foreign exchange risk, and investments. Treasury must address challenges with managing liquidity distributed across markets, currencies, and businesses, especially the need to keep up with regional liquidity nuances and regulatory issues.

As an outgrowth of globalisation, four key external forces impact opportunities and challenges for corporate growth and expansion: economic uncertainty, geopolitical climate, regulatory environment, and technology evolution.

Eight years on from the 2008–2009 financial crises, global economic growth remains sluggish, hovering between 3.1% and 3.4% since 2012. There are numerous examples of geopolitical events exacerbating volatility, uncertainty, and risks arising from the increasing interconnectedness of regions caused by globalization. New regulations impact treasury organizations in many ways, including in-house banking, intercompany transactions, and transfer pricing documentation.

Corporate treasury organizations continue to lean on technology to facilitate change and mitigate complexity arising from global expansion. Cloud-based treasury management systems (TMS) provide an opportunity to implement specific modules on a subscription pricing basis. Governmental agencies, banks, and fintechs are collaborating to evolve complex corporate treasury services.

As discussed in the new Celent report “Globalisation: External Forces Driving Corporate Growth and Expansion," although firms are in different stages of their globalisation journeys, they can benefit from working with their banking partners to adopt strategies and tactics that address the external factors affecting corporate growth and expansion. Universal banks understand geographic differences and nuances, and are in a unique position to advise firms seeking to expand their businesses globally. This report is the sixth in an ongoing series of reports commissioned by HSBC and written by Celent as part of the HSBC Corporate Insights program.

Leapfrogging the bank app to go straight to the electronic assistant

 

No one downloads a banking app from their store of choice for fun, nor do they open it up to amuse themselves. Instead, bank apps are used to accomplish specific tasks – check a balance, pay a bill, send money to a friend. Despite the undeniable utility of these apps, institutions struggle to persuade their customers to use them; adoption rates, depending on the specific measure, hover around 50% and have been stuck for a while at that plateau. Furthermore, while it’s undeniable that many customers want a better customer experience, and at least some of those customers would like more and better features, digital executives struggle to find the ROI of investment in their apps. Of course, there’s the argument that it’s analogous to malls that put up Christmas and other holiday decorations – consumers just expect it, and there’s not an explicit ROI – but that’s the subject of another post.

What if consumers could perform their basic banking tasks without ever having to open up their banking app? They could say, “Siri, what’s my bank balance?” or “Alexa, pay the water bill out of my main checking account.” While we’re not there yet, consumer desire for convenience (aka “seamlessness” or the “frictionless customer experience”) knows no bounds. My experimentation with Siri and Alexa, together with my preliminary research into Artificial Intelligence in banking, have led me to hypothesize that this scenario is a lot closer than many bankers might imagine. In the obligatory Uber example, the payment is invisible; what happens when the consumer makes this happen in all other sorts of interactions?

How are you prepared to offer your customers this new level of service? Do you have APIs that will let this happen? And is there a strategy to go beyond simply fulfilling a request and offering more insight, advice, or perspective than simply what being asked for? Like European banks facing the challenge of PSD2, all retail institutions can look at this as a moment where they’ll be relegated to the background or one where they can revamp their service models to build better, stronger, and deeper customer relationships.  

The growth and impact of Money 20/20

It’s remarkable that in just five years Money 20/20 has gone from a standing start to having about 11,000 [sic – you read that right] registrants. We go to many conferences throughout the course of the year, and the growth in Money 20/20 is unprecedented in the financial services space (as the chart shows). We’ve used data from sponsors and from blogs to assemble the numbers below; there’s no doubt that Money 20/20 is now the 800 pound gorilla in the space.

conference-attendance-over-last-six-years

Money 20/20’s growth is due in large part, we believe, to the ecumenical approach that the organizers have taken toward the payments ecosystem.  Rather than focusing on just banks and vendors, the show includes processors, merchants, venture capitalists, startups, and other various and sundry hangers-on (including analysts). The organizers’ excellent marketing has played a role, to be sure, as has their interesting mix of commercialism and insightful content from the various participants on stage in both plenary and track sessions. But in many ways Money 20/20 has hit a particular point in time just right, recognizing that the payments ecosystem is bigger than just banks, and needs a forum where every participant could get together. The tragedy: this event could have belonged to any of the incumbent organizers of conferences, but they didn’t seize the initiative.

A final thought on substance: while the need for cooperation and collaboration across the ecosystem was universally acknowledged, as was the precept that incumbents and fintechs must partner (hallelujah!), it was interesting that one of the most ambitious payment collaborations of all time, MCX, was nowhere to be seen. It, at least in 2015, was a bridge too far.

A Millennial’s Home-Buying (and Mortgage) Journey

At Celent we take a very customer-centric view of the banking experience. My husband and I recently relocated and bought a new house. As first-time home buyers, we were nervous about the biggest purchase of our lives. Where do we start? How much will it cost? How do we know what type of loan is right for us? Before I start, there a few things you should know about us.

  1. We’re millennials, for better or for worse.
  2. Like most millennials, we are fans of online/mobile banking and rarely step inside a branch. In the last few years, I’ve only been to a bank branch a handful of times.
  3. We both have very good credit (mid 700s) and had enough saved up to put 20% down to avoid PMI. Anyone else who has gone through this process knows that these factors can strongly impact which lenders will approve your loan. So even though this was our first major loan, we were considered relatively low-risk.
  4. We have a fee-only financial advisor who I’ve been using for the last 10 years.

One piece of advice from my financial advisor that stuck with me was, “As tempting as it is, don’t just go with the lowest advertised rate you see on the side pane of Zillow.” He warned me that interest rates are only one of several factors to consider when shopping for a mortgage and that those ads are only giving you one piece of the puzzle. This advice stuck with me because that’s exactly how I had been shopping for mortgages! Clearly, I had no idea what I was doing.

As I got further into my shopping experience I quickly learned that those low advertised rates obnoxiously flashing in a pop-up window were rarely the rates you were actually quoted. This is especially true if you are young and a first-time mortgage customer. In fact, some of the actual rates I was quoted were almost double the advertised rate. Many other lenders just simply never got back to me or made it difficult to reach a live representative.

One of the things I valued most was customer service, including the ability to talk to someone without going through a million different menu options only to be put on hold for 20 minutes. Like many others in my age group, I don’t like talking on the phone; I prefer communicating via email and text. This, though, felt different. I felt like I needed much more handholding and someone to explain all of the legal jargon in this daunting process.

My financial advisor suggested I reach out to Wells Fargo since many of his other clients have had pleasant experiences with them. I took his advice and requested an application for a Wells Fargo mortgage, and I received a phone call the next day from one of their home mortgage consultants. Right away, I noticed he had a kind and personable demeanor, and about 15 minutes later, I was preapproved for a loan. During our conversation, he explained how the mortgage process worked and introduced me to this handy online tool they call yourLoanTracker.  

Figure 1: yourLoanTracker Homepage

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Source: Wells Fargo

Basically, it tracks the loan’s progress and acts as a portal for everything related to the loan: documents, disclosures, contact information, due dates, etc. If there was something I needed to sign, I could digitally sign the document via the portal. The mobile app was another feature that I found somewhat helpful, but was mostly there just to provide an easy way of seeing the loan’s progress on the go. There was also the option to receive text and email alerts when I had a new “task” on my to-do list and to remind me of approaching due dates.

Figure 2: Mobile Alerts and Apps

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Source: Wells Fargo mobile app

A few “closing” remarks (no pun intended!):

  • We were not and still are not Wells Fargo banking customers, and aside from recommending a few products during our initial conversation, I appreciated that we were never aggressively cross-sold or pushed to open a checking account.
  • About 75% of the entire process was done digitally. We never visited a branch or talked to anyone in person; everything was done either digitally or over the phone. While some may prefer in-person visits, I found that phone conversations were more than sufficed.
  • After closing, our consultant called to ask how everything went and if we were happy with our experience (a nice personal touch).
  • Our actual interest rate was only two-tenths of a percent higher than what was advertised, and they were up front about all fees. In fact, we paid less in closing costs than what they initially quoted us.
  • We closed on time, just under eight weeks after being preapproved.

While Wells Fargo didn’t have the lowest rates, the combination of digital tools and customer service was worth the slightly higher rate. Yes, simple touches like customer service and communication are valued even among millennials, particularly when they’re going through something new and complicated! Shocking, right?

 

Get off the bench: free lunch is over for banks?

This is a copy from my guest post for Finnovista that I wanted to share with you here as well.

A few years ago when we started collaborating in creating the Latin American Fintech community there were no Fintech associations, no Fintech conferences and for sure there was no mapping of Fintech start-ups at all. It has been quite a journey for all of us involved. Kuddos to the Finnovista team for being a key element and catalyser for these achievements!

What exciting moment to be in financial services! Many things going on. Banks are being unbundled; and its happening everywhere. Want to take a look? Check what’s going on in the US, Europe and in more near places across Latin America like Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Chile.

It’s making no distinctions, affecting personal and business banking equally. Consequently, the nature of competition is changing; and pressure is not expected to come from other financial institutions. In a recent Celent survey, to SME banking representatives from Latin American banks, most believe that fundamental changes that are expected to occur in the banking industry won’t come from other financial institutions; instead they are looking mainly to new entrants and adjacent industries.

In last year’s survey to retail banks in Latin America, Stanford University found that 47% of the banks see Fintechs as a threat. The same survey indicates that only 28% of the banks meet the needs of their digital customers. Not a position where you want to be.

Customer expectations, pressure on revenue and cost, and increased regulation don’t make the life easier for banks either. Fintech start-ups may advantage banks on responding to customer expectations and being leaner has Fintechs better positioned to pressure on costs; but they have to play under the same regulation and at some point earn revenues in excess of cost (a.k.a. be profitable).

FCA, the U.K. financial regulator, has opened its sandbox for applications from financial firms and tech companies that support financial services. Successful applicants can test new ideas for three to six months with real consumers under loosened regulations. This is something we haven’t see yet in Latin America, though regulators are increasingly open to the benefits of Fintech and innovation, particularly if it is related to financial inclusion: we have seen the support of regulators to mobile wallets across the region in the last couple of years. Mexico appointed this year an officer for Fintech development in what I see as the leading case in the region to facilitate the adoption of services provided by Fintechs under the umbrella – and supervision – of the regulator. Most lately, the Argentinean regulator has introduced changes enabling digital onboarding, and in payments facilitating competition and adoption; though no sandbox yet, but maybe a digital/branchless bank in the way? Will it be a disrupting incumbent or a new player? By themselves or in cooperation with Fintechs?

Indeed, there has been a lot of debate regarding the nature of the (best) relationship between banks and Fintechs; be it competition, cooperation or coopetition, banks need to play a different game. The ecosystem has changed incorporating a myriad of players and increased complexity. Banks must reconstruct their business models around three areas, recognizing that they are part of a broader and new financial ecosystem:

  • Channels: How the bank serves customers
  • Architecture: How the bank organizes to deliver value
  • Innovation: How the bank delivers new ideas, products and services around both channels and architecture

Banks can innovate on their own, or partner with Fintechs or other 3rd parties; at the end of the day banks need to select and execute on the best innovation models. There is no single answer that fits all; each institution will have to discover the best combination of innovation models aligned with risk appetite, organizational culture and the target customers you want to reach.

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