The tech safety net
With support requests from customers over the past year at a record high and banks forced to transform operations, technology has been praised as one of the unsung heroes of the pandemic.
As many remote working and customer service systems were rolled out or expanded by banks within weeks of COVID-19 hitting our shores, the opportunity for tech to take the weight of such huge operational challenges was unprecedented.
“Operationally, I think we’re fortunate to be in an era where technology has been able to come to the rescue for a number of operational activities,” says Chris Leslie, Chief Executive of the Credit Services Association.
“The pandemic was a classic example of a situation where you can imagine or model various scenarios but never predict the scale or the duration. There’s a huge amount of innovation during the course of a crisis. Many of the solutions that businesses came up with weren’t necessarily things they had in their pocket at the time, ready to roll. There was a considerable amount of ingenuity shown, especially with things like working from home.”
One example was TSB’s Smart Agent app, developed in partnership with IBM Watson, which has been integrated into the mobile banking app and is averaging more than 1,000 conversations per day with customers.
“At the start of the pandemic there was basically a supply and demand problem,” says Michael Conway, Partner and AI Practice Leaders at IBM. “It made sense to automate at least some of the high-volume, low-value questions that customers were asking and free up the partners to help with the more complex queries.
“The Smart Agent system went from inception to production within five business days, and within a week it was helping more than a thousand customers per day with queries around things like payment mortgage holidays.”
One of the biggest victories of the pandemic, says Conway, has been the way that artificial intelligence – or augmented intelligence – has enabled customers to access support at an unprecedented speed. It also enables staff to focus on more complex issues where their time is more valuable.
“There are some queries that just don’t need the human touch,” he says. “Frankly, customers just want a quick, any-time response to those types of questions. It’s about freeing up the time for the bank’s staff to really bring that human-led intelligence and helpfulness to other problems.”
While technology has enabled huge operational shifts over the past eighteen months, it’s also raising questions around the development of future contingency plans.
“Technology is changing what you have to prepare for in terms of disruption because of our reliance on it,” says Leslie. “But at the same time, it’s able to help find solutions to many of the problems that might be disrupting business continuity. How did people cope during the Spanish flu pandemic? As a snapshot in time, it’s so different, and just imagine where technology could take us in the future.”
Read more from Michael Conway in our ‘A new opportunity for banks?’ article on pages 23-26 of the Spring 2021 issue of Chartered Banker magazine. For more from Chris Leslie, turn to pages 14-16