When was the last time you entered a bank branch beyond using the ATM in the lobby? Over the last several years, retail banking has struggled to enhance and even maintain strong relationships with consumers, as many choose to go digital. Want to pay for a pizza? Services such as Google Pay and PayTM give consumers touchless payment without taking out their wallets. Want to pay a toll fee, FASTtag enables cashless, RFID transactions.

Retail Banks faced this reality even before stay-at-home orders shifted how consumers interact with businesses from in-person to online. Consumers who had not yet made the switch to digital banking now have had to learn how to conduct business online.

Most will not want to go back to using in-person services ever. In a Bloomberg article, Harit Talwar, head of Goldman Sachs Group's consumer banking division, said, "More than a quarter of customers don't plan to return to branch offices even after it is safe to do so."

Where does this leave retail banks? To thrive in the post-Covid economy, banks have a mandate to deliver greater value and convenience through customer-centric services. The way to make that happen is by focusing on and learning from customer conversations across channels. Whether using a chatbot, posting to social media, or calling a contact center, retail banks can leverage the data, even in real-time, to deliver better customer experiences.

Friction in the customer journey

During Covid-19, limited availability of in-branch banking shifted customer service to contact centers, with banks struggling to keep up with call volumes. In an article in ATM Marketplace, Bob Neuhaus, vice president of financial services intelligence at J.D. Power, quotes, "Bank call centers have become the main, if not the sole, human touchpoint for banks. The challenges for the call centers have magnified by increased call volume, increased call complexity, high stress of both employees and customers, and a huge shift to work at home."

Last April, a leading global conversational A.I. company conducted a survey of over a thousand people to better understand consumer behavior in the pandemic's early days. The findings were eye-opening: nearly 80 percent of people stated their preferred method of getting customer service was to speak with an agent. Still, more than 33% of callers waited over 30 minutes on hold, with 5 percent saying they waited more than 2 hours.

The same survey also showed that over 42% of respondents had called a contact center to resolve Covid-19-related issues around travel, employment, insurance, medical, or financial situations. The pandemic has certainly generated additional call volume at a time when bank contact centers and their employees face multiple challenges because of work from home requirements, , compliance with regulations, along with overloaded and outdated systems.

Options for better customer-centric experiences

To survive and then emerge stronger from these challenging times, banks need to improve both the digital and person-to-person experiences. That requires new and improved ways for banks to understand and act on end-to-end conversations with the customer—from self-service channels (mobile, web, and chatbot) to live agent interactions.

While some banks have deployed disjointed artificial intelligence (AI) and automation solutions, they will struggle to show a real impact on the business. For example, self-service channels still do not understand customer sentiments or intents nor transfer this context as conversations move between channels. Agents have limited in-call coaching guidance or lack immediate access to customer information, which increases average handle times. That's because point solutions do not cover the entire conversation and instead create additional silos within the customer journey.

What is needed is a platform that completely leverages conversational AI, robotic process automation (RPA), and workflow automation to bridge humans and machines and back office and front office operations throughout the customer conversation and across digital and voice channels. Essentially, this is Conversational Service Automation (CSA). Retail banks can use CSA to meet the needs of customers with empathy and understanding. The platform helps agents be more effective and productive, whether working from home or in the contact center. It also ensures continuity in delivering a high-quality experience at lower costs.

Retail banks can deploy CSA to eliminate friction by automating and transforming the end-to-end customer journey by:

1. Conversational Self-Service: Intelligent virtual assistants can be deployed to speak to customers in their local language and respond to frequently asked questions such as locating an ATM, finding out the hours of operation, applying for a new product, filing a stop-payment request, and more. Conversational A.I. helps banks understand customer sentiment and intent to drive self-service automation rates, thus reducing contact center costs. Should a customer need agent assistance, CSA passes context from self-service to agents to create a frictionless interaction.

2. Agent Co-Pilot: Deploying real-time customer context analysis, including sentiment and intent, to help co-pilot agent performance with in-call coaching alerts, giving agents insights to be more empathetic. Automating after-call work and call disposition across high-value banking journeys such as mortgage refinance applications to ensure higher accuracy and reduce average handle time, shortens wait times for customers.

3. Post-Call Analytics: Automating post-call analytics on 100% of customer interactions, including voice, email, and chat, to understand reasons for customer churn and sales effectiveness. CSA also helps drive 100% compliance and identifies other core, customer- and agent-centric experience areas for planning and operational improvements. Banks can also derive insights into how customers use self-service channels and identify potential friction points in a customer journey to optimize customer experience.

Keeping the conversation going

As consumers navigate these challenging times, their conversations with agents on intelligent virtual assistants will have a long-term effect on how they feel about the bank. It will also affect how long they stay with the bank as they move from using branches to embracing digital banking services.

Only by automating conversations and taking a customer-centric approach can banks deliver the kind of frictionless experiences customers seek. Using CSA will help banks overcome these immediate challenges and emerge stronger.

The author is a co-founder and CEO, Uniphore.

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