Voice Activation

The Past, Present And Future Of Voice Banking

It’s been a little over a year since our Digital Banking Tracker heralded the “Dawn of Banking Voice Technology.” Now it’s more like the high noon of banking voice technology, with most major banks hosting their own incarnation — all with slightly different capabilities and adoption rates.

Santander U.K. started the trend by launching a voice assistant within SmartBank, its mobile banking app for students, before rolling it out to the general public. In the early days, adopters of the new technology mostly used it to check card spend at the end of the week or month. By winter, customers were able to move beyond simply asking questions and begin conducting actual transactions using their voice — although they still had to log in to the app using a password.

Meanwhile, it’s been exactly a year since Barclays announced news that it was doing away with passwords and replacing them with voice recognition technology for identity verification. Barclays said that a voice was like an auditory fingerprint, with more than 100 characteristics determined by features of the speaker’s mouth and throat.

The technology was touted to be able to recognize a customer’s voice even if he or she had a cold, had aged or underwent gender reassignment surgery, yet Barclays said it would not be fooled by someone mimicking the voice.

Barclays applied the technology to telephone banking, so that callers would not have to input a password or give other identifying information in order to securely access their account. Bank officials touted the innovation as a form of insurance against fraud, and so far, it seems to be just that.

HSBC also introduced biometric security last summer, allowing customers to log into their accounts by saying, “My voice is my password.” Once logged in, they could use voice commands to check balances and move money between linked accounts, although not to transfer funds to a third-party account.

The solution has been secure, but not perfect: In May, an HSBC customer’s non-identical twin managed to breach his brother’s account by mimicking his twin’s voice. HSBC has since upped the sensitivity of its voice recognition. Despite the breach, the bank maintains that the technology has resulted in a significant reduction in fraud and is stronger than PINs and passwords or phrases.

Wells Fargo jumped on the bandwagon a little later. It first introduced its voice-activated offering in February of this year.

The bank behemoth may have been late to the game, but it used that to its advantage, learning from the other banks’ mistakes and leap-frogging the simple account balance checks to immediately offering the ability to transfer funds by voice. It’s pushing toward offering personalized financial advice through a blend of artificial intelligence with its voice-driven personal assistant.

At the same time, Santander had also moved beyond simple card spend checks. Its customers could send peer-to-peer (P2P) payments via an iPhone, report lost or stolen cards and inquire about specific transactions or spending patterns through voice recognition technology.

Santander’s Head of Technology Innovation, Ed Metzger, was quoted as saying: “The worlds of technology and banking continue to evolve at pace, working hand in hand to deliver a friction-free user experience. We are excited to be the first U.K. high street bank to enable customers to make payments using just their voice, offering them another channel of choice in how they wish to bank.”

The Royal Bank of Canada will soon allow customers to pay bills on their Apple mobile device by simply asking Siri, and USAA and Capital One customers can conduct banking activities with Amazon’s Alexa.

So far, we’ve seen two very different approaches to voice recognition technology in banking. One leverages it for identification and security while the other is driven by a vision of customer service. But going forward, if voice is to be the next big banking thing, banks are going to need to get past the novelty factor and leverage this technology for both security and convenience.

Gadget reported that 79 percent of bankers believed artificial intelligence (AI) would revolutionize how banks interact with and learn from customers, according to an Accenture poll, and 76 percent believed AI would soon become the primary point of contact between banks and customers. More than two-thirds believed AI could become the face of their brand.

As Gadget noted, voice technology specifically and artificial intelligence generally will give banks a fresh opportunity to customize their banking experience with tailored recommendations and advice, such as suggesting ways to save more if it detects a customer has had a salary increase. That means there’s a huge potential for a shakeup while these capabilities are still new.

It will be interesting to see who comes out on top.

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