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Banks launch voice elicited transactions

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PHOTO/DANIEL MORELAND
Amazon’s Alexa is being tested by Wells Fargo.
PHOTO/DANIEL MORELAND Amazon’s Alexa is being tested by Wells Fargo.

“Alexa, transfer $500 from my savings to checking account.”

The era of voice banking is here, and bank officials in the Greater Lehigh Valley say their customers may even be introduced to voice recognition technology this year.

A few large banks with offices in Lehigh Valley and Berks County say that they have been testing and rolling out a voice activation service whereby a voice assistant will offer basic banking functions via mobile app, by email or phone. Over time, that service is expected to be expanded.

In the age where voice technology is available from big players such as Amazon, Apple and Google, it stands to reason that financial institutions are challenged to provide products that mimic the capabilities of products such as Amazon Echo’s Alexa.

Bank representatives, though, said this kind of technology will not be available to customers until banks have assessed the benefits and risks in providing the service.

“We have plans to roll out a voice and chat-driven intelligent virtual assistant, called Erica, which will be integrated into our mobile banking app,” said spokeswoman Betty Riess at Bank of America, which has offices throughout the Greater Lehigh Valley.

“Customers will be able to interact with Erica through talk, text and tap.  Initially, Erica will assist with simple, everyday tasks like transferring money between accounts and paying bills.”

TESTING BY EMPLOYEES

Since fall, Bank of America has made Erica available to employees and is using their feedback to prepare for Erica’s release as a service to customers.

The bank intends to introduce the voice assistant to customers this year.

Riess said the bank has more than 24 million mobile customers that like that they can bank “whenever, however and wherever they want.”

Erica is one more feature to show that Bank of America is staying on trend with the world’s growing need for mobility and convenience, Riess said.

‘TERRIFIC EXPERIENCE’

Katherine McGee, head of digital products for Wells Fargo’s virtual channels, said the bank has been learning about and testing Alexa and other voice assistants.

According to McGee, the bank introduced voice verification last year to give customers who call into contact centers the option to use their voiceprint as a means of authentication. The next step will be for the bank to release a voice assistance service.

“Many customers prefer this to remembering passwords,” McGee said.

“We view voice enabled technology as a terrific experience for our customers that will allow them to complete complex interactions [such as] transaction search, spending inquiries, moving money and making payments while completing other important activities in their lives.”

CAUTION

Ben Wallace, executive vice president of operations and technology at Orrstown Bank, said that while some large banks are running with Alexa- and Echo-inspired voice recognition technology, small banks are more cautious.

“We are asking ourselves, ‘Does it make sense? Where does this fall in our priorities?’ ” Wallace said.

“We have to work with our service bureaus, our vendors, and wait until everyone is ready to release it. We are being told that could be this year or next year.”

PARTNERSHIP

Wallace said that when Orrstown Bank, which has a branch in Wyomissing, decides to launch voice assistance, it will have thought through the entire process. The bank will have defined service options such as paying bills, balance inquiries and money transfers.

“There are features that have a clear place, and there needs to be a high-level maintenance function,” Wallace said.

He said he expects that Orrstown Bank will partner with a big-name company that already has similar products on the market. He offered the example of Amazon but declined to say if the bank intends to partner with Amazon.

UNDER CONSIDERATION

Lancaster-based Fulton Financial Corp., parent company of Lafayette Ambassador Bank, also is weighing the pros and cons of a voice recognition system that would parallel products such as Alexa.

Spokeswoman Eileen Quinn of Fulton Financial and Joe Feilmeier, president and CEO of Lafayette Ambassador Bank, said the financial institutions are considering a voice assistant offering. (Lafayette has branches in the Lehigh Valley and Berks County.)

They said they are hesitant to give a lot of details about the voice automation system project.

ASSURANCE OF SECURITY

Quinn said “testing and vetting of this technology are being done internally. No customers have tested it.”

Feilmeier said testing is in the earliest stage and the final product requires approval by the bank’s partners and vendors.

“We need to make sure we can ensure security of customers’ accounts,” he said.

FEAR OF DATA BREACH

At least one bank representative polled said she believes customers are just as cautious about using voice assistants as banks are about launching the technology.

Spokeswoman Susan Kovacs at Merchants Bank of Bangor said that, while a small percentage of customers will embrace voice assistant technology, there are too many data breach issues in the industry that will interfere with widespread use of the service.

People will use a voice assistant such as Alexa to “set up reminders, ask about the weather, the news, set up grocery lists, etc. Until there is a comfort level with data privacy, I don’t see many consumers moving to this right away” at banks, Kovacs said.

“We have no plans to review that this year, but will watch closely as other banking institutions test it out.”

VULNERABILITY

Kovacs said the advantages to having a voice technology service include saving time, building the bank’s brand and the reduced need for human customer representatives.

But the disadvantage is that data risk increases along with data vulnerability. There also is the possibility of system failure, as one recognizes that this falls on reliance of a single device to support the service.

“We need to better understand what our customers want and prepare for what the next generation expects,” Kovacs said. “We also need to be able to provide customers with answers. Any system disruption will result in a poor customer’s experience.”

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