The chatbot will see you now: Singapore banks turn to ‘bots

Meet OCBC and DBS's chatbots.

The next time you are looking to talk with a banker about a home loan, you may just end up being redirected to an online chatbot instead. OCBC has launched two bots; Emma who does home loans and Buddy who is an internal HR chatbot.

Your correspondent tried Emma and whilst she could answer simple questions like “can i get a home loan,” when questions got a bit more complex one was directed to contact a mortgage specialist. Perhaps the best way to describe OCBC’s chatbot is as an interactive FAQ, which saves the reader time to read through a whole list of questions. Nevertheless, simple as it may be, the use of chatbots to save bankers and clients time in answering repetitive questions is in its infancy and will only grow in the coming months and years. Since OCBC launched Emma in early January, Emma has responded to over 39,000 queries from 5,400 chat sessions with 11% converting to $30m in loans.

Pranav Seth, OCBC Bank’s head of e-business, business transformation and fintech and innovation group, said Emma is able to help customers determine how much they can borrow to purchase a property by asking the same questions a Mortgage Specialist would. “When computing affordability for a home loan or giving a step-by-step guide on applying for a renovation loan, ‘Emma’ can do so within its chat window. This way, ‘Emma’ will not need to direct the consumer to a separate website, where they have to sieve out the information," he said.

Other functionalities include a Total Debt Servicing Ratio (TDSR) calculator and it employs a narrowing down technique to understand the query better. Seth said that it took three months for Emma to be fully-trained to address all possible questions asked by consumers about home and renovation loans.

DBS’s chatbot efforts are through POSB Bank's dVA (digital Virtual Assistant) which is only on its Facebook Page. Customers can enquire about the bank’s products and services like locating nearby ATMs or knowing the opening hours of a certain branch just by sending quick message using the Facebook Messenger app.

DBS Bank head of consumer banking group Jeremy Soo said this is especially useful given that the bank is already serving close to 5 million consumers who demand seamless customer experience across platforms. "We know that our customers are spending time conversing on their favourite mobile messaging apps, and we are immersing ourselves in the customer journey by making it easier and more convenient for them to engage us. Customers can also soon look forward to conducting their banking transactions via this service,” he said.

Whilst OCBC does not yet have a chatbot that can answer general banking inquiries like DBS, it has instead developed Singapore's first HR Mobile App for its employees. The app includes an AI-powered chatbot named Buddy that is integrated with the Bank's human resources information system.

OCBC Bank senior vice president for group operations and technology Praveen Raina said Buddy can be asked a range of HR-related questions including mandatory leave requirements or status of an expense claim.

"The HR app which ‘Buddy’ is a part of, was launched on 23 May 2017 for Singapore employees. It actually came about from internal feedback; our colleagues shared that they wanted to be able to access HR information and perform HR-related matters without having to contact the HR team or be seated at their desks," he explained.

Creation of the bots

The development of the chatbots took some time especially POSB's dVA, which took developers 11,000 hours to train. Since September 2016, POSB trained dVA with actual questions and responses taken from the bank’s customer centre. The team has put up an annotation team to ensure that responses are kept valid and succinct. It also has learning abilities that makes it able to respond more accurately.

OCBC's Emma was developed by the home loans team and startup CogniCor, one of the firms under OCBC Bank’s FinTech accelerator programme. The startup specialises in chatbot solutions and, together with OCBC Bank’s expertise and knowledge in the home and renovation loans business, both teams were able to develop a customised chatbot through a rigorous programming and testing process.

Buddy took a shorter time before it was rolled out. Raina said it was developed by in-house team of five mobile developers in collaboration with the HR team. Both the HR app and the chatbot were completed within two months. "This efficiency can be attributed to the team’s adoption of the Agile project management approach, which gave them the flexibility to continuously improve and respond to changes or feedback instead of following fixed processes," he added.

Bots' future

Technology firm Juniper Network reckons that chatbots will be responsible for cost savings of over $8b per annum by 2022 globally, up from $20m this year.

By 2022, banking and healthcare services utilising bots can expect average time savings of just over four minutes per enquiry, which equates to average cost savings in the range of $0.50 to $0.70 per interaction.

The author of the Juniper report, Lauren Foye, said, "The advantages are that chatbots can save time, both for consumers and for customer service operatives, with many interactions streamlined to be instant, and thus far more efficient than traditional phone enquiries."

Being one of the chatbot pioneers in the financial industry, OCBC's Seth sees the ability to learn on the job as a critical part of the technology's improvement. "Majority of tech giants are already investing considerable amount of money into building chatbots and we are certain that one, or two, universally-accepted brand/form of chatbot will dominate the market. Currently, majority of chatbots work on a text-based conversation, but we are certain that the future of chatbots lies in their ability to converse with the user verbally. This will allow for more personal conversations and more tailored responses from the chatbots," he said.

In Photo (L-R): Pranav Seth, Praveen Raina, and Lauren Foye.

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