Peter Kirk, head of distribution and marketing services at Accenture, explores how robotics are transforming the traditional banking environment.

You have a nagging financial question. What investment fund can I choose? Can I switch to a new bank account? Can I get more flexible insurance cover? You navigate the website of your bank or insurer. You’re on their app. You might have even asked Alexa, your new virtual assistant you’ve bought from Amazon. But when the website doesn’t have the answer – and your enquiry demands a more tailored answer – who would you rather have help you? A human? Or a robot?

I’m not talking about a machine fresh out of a Hollywood film filling out a form, but consumers receiving computer-generated advice by a financial services firm, using automated virtual solutions.

More and more people now say they’d use a robot for financial advice. In our recent survey of 32,000 consumers around the world, nearly seven in 10 customers of banking, insurance and financial advisory services are willing to use robo-advice. In the UK, 74% of consumers are prepared to access robo-advice for complex banking decisions, including how to allocate investments. Moreover, 68% would use robo-advice to help them with the type of bank account to open, and 60% would use robo-advice for retirement planning.

When it comes to money, digital services are not new. We’ve been transferring money, scouting for insurance quotes online and checking our cash balances online already. But the appetite for virtual services to deal with more complex financial transactions is a growing trend in Europe, and is driving a new wave of change in financial firms.

Smarter machines

Whereas once automation invoked memories of repeating your name to a machine down the phone – now, with advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, consumers are seeing several perceived benefits of virtual advisors. They include the speed of dealing with enquiries, 24/7 assistance, making calculations with big data, and less chance of human error. Even more interestingly, older consumers (over 65) are more comfortable with a robot offering financial advice, simply because of their impartiality. In some cases, the emotive draw of a human can be off-putting when it comes to discussing financial affairs.

Here’s the thing: machines are getting smarter. Customer interactions with intelligent machines will start becoming that little more ‘human’. The rules-based technology is more equipped to predict and deal with your questions – learning your tone – emulating human execution of repetitive processes. Advances in robotics enable machines to not only communicate with humans, but also work side by side with them. Robots can pass on more complex enquiries to a well-equipped human advisor no longer bogged down by repetitive, simple, enquiries. As the automation sits within a financial services firm’s existing infrastructure, it becomes about the successful weaving of technology and people.

People are still vital. Our report shows monthly branch usage in the UK is at the highest level since 2010, suggesting consumers still expect human advice and support. Over half (53%) of UK bank customers access their branch compared to 47% in 2010. Significantly, the younger Generation Z (aged 18-21) customers in the UK visit their branch more regularly than any other generation, with 25% visiting at least once per week.

Customer relationships

There’s a clear message for financial firms investing in this technology: retaining customers will depend on striking the right balance between human and robo service. For instance, banks need to recognise that for many consumers including the younger generation, the shift towards computer-generated services cannot be at the expense of access to human service at their local bank.

Ultimately, automation must be used to not only make banks work smarter, but improve the customer experience. And when that technology is plugged into the internet of things, and the swathes of data customers make available to a bank or insurer, this can prompt further shifts in their relationship with a financial firm.

It’s fundamentally about changing their relationship from a transactional one, to a personal one. Today’s consumers expect their bank or insurer to understand and anticipate their needs and offer tailored services that meet their demand.

We’re still a way from robo-advisors dealing with all matters of our finances. But it is proving to be a speedy, effective and efficient solution for financial advice. The successful financial firm of tomorrow will be one which embraces robotic process automation to empower their own workforce to service an evolving, digital customer.

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