Swedish banks embrace rapidly evolving chatbots

Artificial intelligence is playing an increasingly important business role for Sweden’s banks – and chatbots are the starting point for many

Sweden’s banks, including SEB, Swedbank and Nordea, are embracing artificial intelligence (AI) to increase their competitiveness.

Aida, Nina, Nova are three of the banks’ newest employeess. But instead of sitting behind a desk, they offer virtual assistance to internal and external customers.

“AI is about using robotics and machine learning in combination with chatbots to automate a lot of the things we do,” said Mattias Fras, head of robotics strategy and innovation at Nordea. “Digitisation is hitting us as much as any other business at the moment. We have new banks coming in that are providing similar products at a much lower cost. AI can enable us to compete in both customer experience and efficiency.”

This reflects the changes taking place in the Nordic banking market. Consumers increasingly want 24/7 services while fintech companies offer competing digital banking products. Then there is new regulation, notably the EU’s revised payments directive, PSD2. All these factors are changing the use of, and access to, banking data.

AI-based virtual assistants are one way to keep up with this new order. They are the ideal employee: they work 24/7, never tire and always react quickly. By taking over simple customer service tasks, both internally and externally, they are freeing up bank employees for more complex jobs and customer queries.

Sweden’s banks are accelerating these plans. In the past year, Nordea launched the Nova chatbot for its life and pensions unit in Norway, SEB introduced virtual assistant Aida, and retail bank Swedbank greets its website customers with virtual assistant Nina.

But the banks’ virtual assistants have not been trained overnight. Swedbank started to roll out Nina in 2014 and SEB’s Aida is a follow-up to its first chatbot, Amelia (built on IPsoft’s AI software of the same name), which was launched in 2016.

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“We started exploring Aida [then called Amelia] at the end of 2015 internally with our IT services,” said Erika Lundin, head of SEB’s centre of excellence for Aida. “We found that, for example, unlocking a Windows account on a computer was a question often asked of our service desk. So we began with some typical IT-related questions. We did a pilot with 600 employees in early 2016.”

By early 2017, Aida was rolled out across SEB’s internal helpdesk and hired as a “trainee” for the bank’s front-end customer service. Now she handles about 13% of all IT support questions, as well as helping bank customers with card issues, account queries and booking meetings.

At Nordea, the starting point was robotic process automation (RPA) in 2015. Today the bank has about 150 software robots managing more than 300 simple rule-based processes. Chatbots came into the picture in early 2017 and Nova was launched in June last year.

Nova runs on technology from Norwegian startup Boost.ai and can handle about 2,000 different customer questions across Nordea’s website and mobile services. Fras said the bank built chatbots internally that currently under testing and is also working with suppliers.

“We work on parallel tracks,” he said. “We use both cloud-based solutions and on-premise systems to be fast. We believe cloud is the way to go, but there are still some challenges for the bank to really get into the cloud, which is why we have a multi-system approach to chatbots.”

Lost in translation

Although Aida, Nina and Nova are continually expanding their skills – including sensing emotions – their capabilities are still far behind their human colleagues. Language, in particular, has proved to be an issue. Most AI assistants are happy to converse in English, but offering similar service levels in local Nordic languages is a different matter.

“This is an area of AI that isn’t very mature yet,” said Fras. “That is why we are working with startups, such as a Norwegian company that knows local dialects.”

SEB has been teaching Aida Swedish itself. In 2016, the virtual assistant became the first non-English deployment of IPsoft’s AI software, although Lundin described its early language skills as “a kind of Google Translate Swedish”.

“We had to spend a lot of time developing the Swedish language with the vendor,” she said. “Now Aida is quite good in Swedish and has about 250 chats a day. She can answer a lot of different questions about our products and services.”

Lundin believes the next step for the AI is to deliver a more bespoke service. For example, currently Aida does not identify the customer she is helping, but in the future she could tap into detailed customer data to provide more personalised advice.

The cost of progress?

As such digital employees become increasingly advanced, so does their deployment. In Accenture’s Banking technology vision 2017 survey, 76% of the respondents thought banks would deploy AI as their primary method for customer interaction within three years.

Deutsche Bank CEO John Cryan went a step further in a 2017 speech, declaring that a “big number” of the bank’s staff would lose their jobs as a result of new technologies taking over.

But Martin Kedbäck, chief product owner at Swedbank, said the human colleagues of virtual assistants do not need to worry about their jobs just yet.

“We look at this technology more as a competence shift where the [virtual] assistant will handle the not-so-complex customer journeys where humans add little value,” he said. “This will give our advisers more time to talk to our customers where it really matters.”

Despite these reassuring words, change is happening. In October 2017, Nordea announced it was axing 6,000 jobs because of changes centred around digital transformation. Nordea’s Fras stressed that robotics and AI were not a direct reason for the layoffs, but acknowledged that what he and his team are doing now will have consequences for the bank’s future workforce.

“It is sometimes easy to understand what kind of jobs will be lost because we already see it in some of the simpler, routine-based jobs,” he said. “But we also see new jobs being created. Coders, data scientists – we have to recruit more of these people. No one knows what the next stage will be, but banking, like any other industry hit by digitisation, will become more and more automated.”

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