COVID-19 Lockdown: AI Chatbots to Lead BFSI Customer Services

September 3, 2021

The worldwide lockdowns to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak has created operating and financial sustainability uncertainties for businesses in many major economies. These lockdowns have tremendously affected most industries and businesses. One important business that has been affected by the lockdowns is the customer service desk business across industries. Visiting service providers’ offices or branches is out of the question right now – this means that online or telephonic assistance are the only two other options. 

However, only one of these seems effective in the current situation, and it’s not a call center that is likely to be busy right now. Consider this fact: the global customer care BPO market is booming, estimated to be worth $55.5 billion. The financial services industry is one of the top industries that use outsourced services for customer care. And rightly so, because customers are pretty restless when it comes to queries concerning their recent transactions. The problem: the lockdown has forced call center staff to stay at homes and operate at a significantly reduced bandwidth, leaving customers to expect slower grievance resolution or, even worse – customer service desks that aren’t reachable.

Today, companies that had invested in AI chatbots earlier are reaping the multiplied benefits of their investments in technology. The chatbots are not only assisting in providing interruption-free customer engagement but also delivering substantial cost efficiencies.

Does a refocus on cost efficiencies mean death to conventional customer service practices?

Companies across the globe are looking at cost efficiencies to offset the market headwinds caused by the lockdowns. This would include layoffs, shutting down some of the non-crucial cost centers, and holding back the marketing outlays, among other strategic decisions. For example, Monzo has announced to furlough up to 295 employees in the UK as it makes efforts to weather the COVID-19 setbacks. The bank’s support staff will cover the reduced capacity of almost 900 employees in the UK. But that would mean an increase of 30% on the workload on the retained staff, which could translate into delayed and less-effective service. Similarly, India’s online insurance firm Acko has laid off around 50 employees from the customer service, operations, sales, and marketing teams.

Increasing Use of AI Chatbots for Customer Support

As most businesses continue to migrate from traditional to digital ways of operation, chatbots have increased in recent times. The overall impact and growing importance of intelligent chatbots can be understood if we look at the report from Gartner, which suggests that by 2020, customers will prefer to resolve 85% of their problems with an enterprise without interacting with support staff. In banking, chatbots are being used by Wells Fargo, Capital One Bank of America, HDFC Bank, HSBC, CBA, and many other leading global banks. Recently ICICI Direct, a leading retail-led equity franchise of ICICI bank, announced improved digital delivery of services by launching a WhatsApp chatbot. ICICI Direct’s customers would be entitled to a host of services through this new delivery platform without customers needing to contact call centers or their relationship managers or logging into the web portal. In the first phase of rollout, the chatbot would showcase a users’ holdings, provide live stock prices, information about products & services, and newer offerings, along with the option of placing transactions. All of this is followed by a simple “Hi” on their chatbot. Mr. Yagnesh Parekh, Chief Technology & Digital Officer at ICICI Securities, highlights the importance of customer self-service and the role of chatbots in enforcing it further, saying, “Over 95% of transactions on our platform are done by customers themselves with no external intervention. As a ubiquitous communication tool, WhatsApp has very high user engagement cutting across demography, geography, gender, and socio-economic backgrounds. We are confident that this service will find a lot of value to our customers.”

An example of a quick-to-develop and non-AI format chat service is the UK’s TSB bank that has added a ‘Smart Agent’ function to its website. The Smart Agent allows its customers to ask questions to a chatbot or a live agent. IBM rolled out this tool in just five days. For IBM, the AI mastermind company that owns Watson, this should have been super-easy. But IBM is not alone in the AI game of BigTechs. Google Cloud has recently launched a rapid-response AI chatbot. This chatbot will help organizations across industries (including banks) handle ballooning customer service queries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Google promises to allow companies to launch this chatbot within two weeks. The chatbot enables chat and voice integration to suit the business needs.

However, these are pretty recent developments. Here are some of the players that have long-invested in AI chatbots which have proven to perform well in current situations:

  1. Erica is a chatbot developed by Bank of America. This bot processes both voice and text messages and responds to the issues raised by its users. Erica acts as a voice-activated virtual assistant, which now has more than 10 million users. As most banking-related queries are resolved via the chatbot, staffing requirements have been substantially reduced.
  2. An abbreviated form of an electronic virtual assistant, EVA is India’s first banking chatbot that works on natural language processing and AI technology. Customers can obtain information about new banking products, miscellaneous charges/fees, and other banking services.
  3. GEICO (Government Employees Insurance Company), an American auto insurer, has launched a chatbot named Kate. It responds to queries posed through messages and voice commands. It helps customers navigate the app’s features and showcases details about their insurance policy, renewal date, and other information about insurance products.
  4. HDFC Life, an insurance provider in India, has developed a conversational chatbot on their website named Elle. The objective of introducing this bot is to reduce the number of financial advisors on call. This chatbot allows its users to obtain information about their insurance products. In addition, it lets users take a one-minute-long quiz and provides them with the best suitable tax plan and retirement solutions personalized to their needs.
  5. Mastercard, a global payments and technology company, has released a chatbot program named KAI. From its banking partners’ end, the chatbot allows its users to communicate with their banks swiftly, conduct various transactions, check their balance, set spending limits, and manage their money. On the merchants’ side, consumers can make purchases directly via the chatbot and also compare prices. 
  6. ICICI Lombard General Insurance, a general insurance provider in India, has a chatbot called “MyRA.” As per their claim, MyRA has served more than 60,000 customers by resolving their issues and helping them with the right quotes. It also allows customers to compare various insurance plans to help them make the right choice.

It is needless to say that the use of AI chatbots is not limited to businesses. AI chatbot tech has enormous scope in helping governments and civil societies in the current crisis. E.g., Bengaluru-based startup Senseforth is running a pilot project to automate citizen services in Switzerland, which leverages its conversational AI platform. It would help governmental organizations that are colossally affected while being up and ready to react to dynamic coronavirus situations. Governments are now seeing the upsides of AI-powered services and apps that disseminate the correct information quickly. Similarly, Taiwan-based organization GoSky AI has manufactured a Messenger chatbot for citizens during the pandemic. In addition, Microsoft worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to adapt its existing Healthcare Bot service as a self-screening tool for people wondering whether they need treatment for COVID-19.

Implementing these types of AI bots in anticipation of times of crisis, such as the current pandemic, could have helped many businesses resolve most customer queries and reduce dependence on their human staff. Unfortunately, most businesses that have not adopted AI bots, or the hybrid of AI+human chat solutions, have not been able to keep up and resolve consumer grievances. This includes major banks, micro-lenders, digital payment providers, insurers, etc. Since AI chatbots are not bound by time and location, they could have been a huge help in these harsh times when a consumer expects services to be of utmost quality and efficiency, and that too at a meager cost. We can undoubtedly expect chatbot technology to be adopted by more companies for future crises.

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