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Digital Banking

The Dawn of Banking Voice Technology

Banking is now entering the on-demand, voice-activated fold. In the May edition of the Digital Banking Tracker™, PYMNTS spoke with Ed Metzger, Santander UK’s Head of Innovation, Technology and Operations, about how they are leveraging this hot new technology to reimagine how banking happens in an app-based technology-driven world. The Tracker also ranks more than 58 players (including 10 new ones) to assess their readiness to drive digital banking innovation.

Remember when you first asked Siri some silly question only to receive a response that indicated she was onto your shtick and potentially not as thoroughly amused by it as you were? That, as it turns out, was the good old days of voice technology assistance. Today the incorporation of voice technology into daily activities runs the gamut, from taking music requests on-demand to ordering from Amazon to typing your texts for you. And, if the success Santander UK is finding in an early in-app voice pilot is any indication, you can likely expect your banking to be voice-enabled in the near future as well.

When Santander UK recently launched a voice assistant in its student-geared mobile banking app, SmartBank, it marked the first bank in the U.K. to roll out a voice technology offering. In partnership with Nuance Communications, the same Massachusetts-based company behind the voice of Siri, the bank is piloting the technology in order to initially promote voice-activated functionality around spending tracking.

Just weeks removed from the launch, PYMNTS caught up with Ed Metzger, Santander UK’s Head of Innovation, Technology and Operations, to talk about initial impressions and what’s next for voice technology in banking.

The response thus far? Phenomenal.

While Metzger declined to divulge specific early results, he spoke about the general kind of usage Santander is seeing early on with the voice technology. “We’ve seen huge cases in this first release around card spend and that’s when we see peaks around month’s end and on certain days of the week,” he said.

Metzger said that positive response has affirmed the value of experimenting with strategic innovation within the banking realm.

“We have been able to launch a market-leading proposition to customers, customers have appreciated what we’ve done and are using it, and that, for me, shows the value of innovation and pushing the boundaries on what banks can do and responding to customer behavior trends and industry trends,” he said. “That for me is the key takeout, about how banking services can continue to evolve as technology changes and how customer behavior changes.”

Using your words  

Santander UK saw voice technology as an opportunity for in-app banking experimentation, Metzger said, not just because of its rising popularity, but also because it’s natural for customers.

“We are seeing voice technology improving, and clearly, as a human being, the voice is the most natural way to communicate,” he explained. And that’s consciously, despite the proliferation of texting and instant messaging, he added. “Actually, the easiest way to communicate is voice. So that customer need combined with the improvement in technology and the increasing acceptance of voice is what inspired us to invest in this particular proposition, to test out how banking would work using voice.”

User comfort and familiarity with voice technology in general, Metzger said, is a big factor in driving adoption of the technology within the banking app.

“What we’re seeing is that as technology has advanced, voice has become a feasible mechanism for people to interact with technology and technological systems, and we’ve seen an increasing trend with some of the big tech companies with Siri, Cortana – where companies are now investing heavily in voice technology and people are responding to that and starting to use that voice technology,” Metzger said. “Obviously you also [have] to think about the Amazon Echo, which is even taking it to the next stage beyond that.”

The bank opted to pilot the technology in its student app, he said, because millennials are known early adopters.

“The app that we launched it in is an app for students,” he said. “We launched it in-app for students for the very single reason that I think it’s fair, it’s a truism, that millennials tend to be very good adopters of these kinds of technologies, but we have to work through it in detail to verify that assumption.”

As a rule of thumb, if the students embrace the technology, larger rollout into the main Santander UK app will follow.

“What we want to see over time is how people continue to use it, especially to help them better manage their nuances,” Metzger said.

Learning the language

Just like a human learning a new language, Santander UK’s voice assistant will bene t from experience communicating with customers before it picks up on certain aspects of the English language, Metzger said.

As the technology is first rolled out, developers are manually changing how the software is programmed,
so that it can “learn” from that experience. However, Metzger said, as the technology develops and becomes more re ned, it should be able to learn from its interactions with customers and improve without help from human developers.

“Fundamentally, one of the checks you have to do with this technology, the ultimate control, is what did the customer say, and what answer did we give back to the customer, do we think that was the right thing to do,” Metzger explained. “There’s a manual stage in the tuning, because you cannot 100 percent rely on machines to do it, especially in the early days, so there’s a manual element to it. As the technology develops, obviously the models become more predictive and we can let the models deliver more of the improvements in performance.”

Security, the voice of reason

While the current use of voice technology in the Santander app is limited to actual specific banking activities, like analyzing card spending to help users manage their nuances, using voice biometrics for authentication purposes may not be far off, Metzger said.

“We want to test one thing at a time,” he said. Regardless, as with any bank technology, security “is critical for us and our customers,” he said. The voice technology, he said, sits behind the bank’s existing security.

But there are still additional precautions users should take.

“If you’re in a crowded place, you should be aware of your surrounding – the same way that when you withdraw money from an ATM you should be aware of who’s around you,” he said.

What’s next?

How far Santander will go using voice technology will ultimately be guided by customers, according to Metzger.

“Creating some things won’t be suitable for voice, being able to understand the evolution of my nuance is something that is best done visually,” explained. “But the theory is that the technology is very flexible and we can expand it as far as customer demand pushes us.”

When the 2.0 version releases in the fall, Metzger said, “we’re going to move from simply asking informational questions to doing transactions.” This will include being able to execute payments using voice commands, he said. Also included in the update will be account alerts that can be set up using voice commands.

And then there are the questions themselves, which are currently the backbone of the customer experience with the voice technology within the app.

“We’re also expanding the informational questions to include a little more complexity, like ‘how much did I spend on holiday?’ as opposed to ‘how much did I spend last month?’” Metzger explained. “So, in other words, a little bit more contextual rather than driving by time period.”

Thinking outside the app

Naturally, the nearest extension to the current student app voice technology incorporation would be into the main Santander UK app. But, as Metzger explained, there’s plenty of opportunity to bring the voice recognition software into other places outside of a smartphone context as well.

“As far as where it goes, and this is pure speculation, but obviously we have currently something in an app, there are lots of other channels for what your voice could be used, to interact with machines, and there’s obviously a lot of excitement in the marketplace if you look at the Internet of Things,” he explained, citing Amazon Echo and Apple TV as devices “where voice is used for a wider range of things.”

For the time being, however, Metzger and his team are determined to establish voice technology tools on mobile apps before adding them to other channels.

“Right now, we’re very focused on the mobile channels because that’s now one of the main ways we interact with customers and it continues to grow in popularity here in the U.K. as a channel,” he said.

Metzger said that there has been “a lot of interest” in voice technology from other divisions of the bank outside the U.K. When it may rollout beyond his geography, he could only speculate. “Clearly, when will they launch much depends on local market conditions and different markets in different stages of maturity, mobile technology, app usage and also the use of voice.”

So what if you want to know when your bank will have voice technology incorporated into its app? You may want to try asking Siri.

To download the May edition of the Digital Banking Tracker™, click the button below.

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About the Tracker

The PYMNTS Digital Banking Tracker™ brings you the latest news, research and expert commentary from the FinTech and consumer banking space, along with the rankings of more than 50 companies serving or powering the digital banking sector.

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