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Why high tech and human touch should go hand in glove


Here’s to the artificial intelligence-driven bots that comb troves of consumer data, analyze the information and then reliably predict what a customer needs.

But that’s only half the story. It takes the softer, intuitive human touch to convert those machine-crafted insights into a seamless, personalized customer experience.  It goes beyond the chatbot experience that some banks have introduced to provide customers quick-and-easy access to their account information.

Thanks to AI—identified as BAI’s Trend of the Year and discussed in a BAI Banking Strategies podcast—customers can now have a deeper, meaningful discussion about their more complex financial services needs with personal bankers, investment advisors, call center reps or tellers. They can better anticipate what a customer considers or should consider. Powered by big data, algorithms such as neural networks and more muscular computer hardware, AI is shaping up as a customer experience differentiator in financial services.

AI in service of customer service

A superior brand experience makes all the difference in the competitive financial services marketplace where most products and services are viewed as commodities. The combination of clairvoyant customer insights fueled by AI-powered predictive analytics and the sensitive human touch amounts to the new secret weapon in financial services.

We see the formula at work in other industries as well. In retail, for example, Nordstrom has a long-standing reputation for extraordinary customer service in its 120 full-line department stores. Aiming to elevate its customer experience another notch and better integrate online and offline shopping experiences, the fashion retailer recently acquired two retail technology startups.

One of the new platforms leverages AI to replicate the personalized in-store experience for mobile shoppers by texting them personalized notifications while they browse online. The recommendations are based on the customer’s historical preferences and behaviors. The other platform will allow its sales associates to better communicate internally about customer preferences.

Nordstrom wants to blur the line between its digital and in-store shopping experiences. And this could prove pivotal to ushering in an omnichannel future that combines technology with its legendary human touch.

Answers before they ask

Within our own industry, few financial services institutions combine emerging technologies with the human touch as well as USAA. The San Antonio-based USAA is a diversified financial services company that operates USAA Federal Savings Bank, with total assets of $81 billion.

USAA pioneered the technology for mobile checking deposits to serve its expansive membership of 11 million current or former members of the military and their families. In 2014, USAA launched an AI-powered mobile app named Eva. The voice-activated, natural-language app can respond to dozens of member questions and requests.

To enhance its predictive analytics capabilities, USAA invested in CognitiveScale, an AI software maker whose product is designed to foretell what customers want before they even ask for it.

Eric Smith, USAA’s chief data and analytics officer, says predictive analytics are essential for a winning customer experience. “They help us empower our members,” Smith says. “When our members are early on in their financial careers—just out of an academy, for example—they need to make smart decisions. With some prompting, we can get them started with a good base from a financial discipline perspective.”

USAA’s member services reps are masters of customer care. And no wonder. They are well-armed with deep customer insights. “When a member calls in, we give the rep the full view of that member’s profile,” Smith says.

“Our reps have a clear idea why the member may call based on what they may have said in the interactive voice response and the members’ digital history in the mobile app,” he adds. “We use predictive analytics to prep the reps on the potential applications they may need to open up on behalf of the members.”

Mining the data for customer gold

USAA has rich veins of historical customer data it can tap because of the intense loyalty of its membership and its multigenerational nature, Smith says. “We are able to apply that data and then leverage these newer technologies around machine learning and artificial intelligence to actually affect not just a segment of members but down to the individual member’s particular need.”

From a marketing perspective, he adds, the data allows USAA to identify certain products relevant to upcoming life events for members such as weddings or retirements.

USAA, says Smith, is proud of its technical prowess. But it considers its truest measure of success its Net Promoter Score (NPS) and its customer feedback. The company’s NPS has been consistently high for many years. He believes USAA’s empathetic, gracious customer care—carried out by human reps armed with the deep insights of AI-driven predictive analytics—creates a frictionless customer experience. That gives them distinct competitive advantage.

As a I pointed out in my January column, banks and credit unions have a great opportunity to seize the AI opportunity. Money and talent may present obstacles. But partnering with or investing in tech startups, just as Nordstrom and USAA have done, makes the barriers less daunting. It’s a shot well worth taking.

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Holly Hughes is chief marketing officer of BAI.