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Voice Banking: What’s Old is New Again

Capital One was the first U.S. bank to integrate with Amazon’s Alexa platform.

I am as excited about Alexa/Cortana/Siri/Google as the next geek (except maybe for this guy) and look forward to seeing many examples at Finovate in 2 weeks. We already own a pair of Amazon Echos and we’ll probably get more. Our biggest uses: music, the grocery shopping list (which still requires a visual to use when shopping), and as a kitchen timer. We love it. But is it a great interface for financial services? I’m not sure.

1987 AT&T advertisement

Roll back the clock three decades. Voice banking was the newest thing. It offered 24/7 access to bank balances and transactions. No more waiting for a paper statement, queuing up at an ATM or even going to a branch.

However, when the Internet arrived in the late 1990s, routine automated queries began migrating from the phone, where it was tedious and time consuming to “listen” to data, to the wonderful new visual medium. Users could comprehend a series of numbers much, much faster visually than orally.

So when I see the hype around voice banking, it’s hard not to think that we’ve just gone backwards in UX by two decades. I don’t think the current crop of voice products are all that compelling for day-to-day banking. Sure, “Alexa, what’s my balance?” is easier and faster than calling a toll-free number or even logging in to mobile banking. But most customers looking for their balance also need to understand the transactions that created it. And for that a visual aid is much better than a recital of a bunch of figures.

To add value, voice interfaces must handle requests AND deliver results that are not better served with visuals. (Note: We are not talking about voice commands for mobile or desktop banking which do add value for almost any task.) What might those use cases be?

  • Annotating transactions:
    Trigger: “Alexa ask me what my recent purchases were for?”
    Alexa: “$12.77 at Pizza Press yesterday?”
    User: “Lunch with Charlie at school”
    Alexa: “$64.12 at Office Depot on Monday?”
    User: “Business expense for office supplies”
  • Second factor for online/mobile banking
  • Alerts (assuming Alex could proactively start a conversation with you)
  • Routine customer service questions (such as Capital One example above)

Bottom line: For marketing and convenience reasons, financial institutions will Alexa-enable a wide variety of tasks such as transaction queries, transferring funds, authorizing payments, and so on. But few of those tasks are handled more effectively by two-way voice communications. Sometimes, it may prove more convenient (e.g., think of a busy parent trying to avoid an overdraft while making dinner for their 3-year old). But even if they can use Alexa, I think most people will pull out their mobile phone for the majority of banking tasks, very likely using voice commands to simplify the input process.

Author: Jim Bruene (@netbanker) is Founder & Senior Advisor to Finovate as well as Principal of BUX Advisors, a financial services user-experience consultancy. 

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