Text-based services have been around since the dawn of time, but not until the past year have we seen the rise of chatbots, in part led by Facebook’s unveiling of Bots for Messenger towards the beginning of the year. Mark Zuckerberg led the reveal, saying: “I’ve never met anyone who likes calling a business, and no one wants to have to install a new app for every service or business they want to interact with … We think you should just be able to message a business, just as you would a friend.”

Since the Facebook launch, developers have created more than 11,000 bots, and some banks have been brave enough to dip their toes in the water already, keen to explore the role that bots can play within retail banking. The UAE is keen on leveraging such technology, with the banking and finance sector being a top priority for the government to transform. Emirates NBD is a prime example of the progress local banks are making in this space, with its “Future Lab” debuting an intelligent chatbot to offer better customer service. EVA as it’s known, acts as a virtual assistant and can converse in English and offer the end user an enhanced experience based on artificial intelligence algorithms. The beta version also includes chatbot capabilities via the bank’s Facebook messenger, which will soon be extended to its mobile banking application.

While a few banks might be able to experiment, for the majority it’s an ambiguous space which needs to be exceptionally well understood before significant investment is made. Where money and private information is involved, the stakes are currently very high. A recent Forrester report advised that banks should hold off and wait a further two to three years before investing in customer-facing chatbot services. Instead, for the time being, it recommends banks would be better off working with their technology partners to focus on foundational digital initiatives that will enable better bots and artificial-intelligence-based services in the future.

There are several reasons for this, but fundamentally the technology simply isn’t mature enough yet and AI hasn’t quite progressed to the point where it can really carry on a conversation and always give a customer what they’re asking for. For banking bots to go mainstream it’s essential that they’re easy to use, with high functioning natural language processing capabilities.

Another factor to consider is that instant messaging remains incredibly popular. A recent study commissioned by Northwestern University in Qatar revealed that social media use in the region is shifting away from Twitter and Facebook and moving toward text platforms such as Snapchat and WhatsApp.

It’s a trend that cannot be ignored when weighing up the consumer attention economy, and the continuing popularity of messaging apps suggests people will happily talk to bots in the future. Bots will need much experimentation to find their place, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t coexist on people’s smartphones with apps and other future technologies yet to be invented.

Striking the balance

The global race for banks to be digital first is on, but it is early days still. Leading banks are in the process of learning how to take a mobile-first approach and re-imagine their customer experiences, from opening up a current account to buying a home or taking out a small business loan. While many have begun migrating their customers from the branch or call centre to their digital channels, it’s critical to take a country-specific view and carefully consider the cultural differences and preferences before deciding on the pace of change. The UAE could serve as an ideal test market, research from Google on the matter recently ranked the country as no. 1 in global smartphone penetration, with 73.8 per cent of consumers carrying smartphones. The UAE’s strong retail sector based upon it’s a growing middle class, surging consumer confidence in technology and increasing domestic consumption means there is major potential for digitisation. For the average bank, a current priority is how to migrate routine activities out of the branch to self-service digital channels. But it’s critical that the mobile or digital experience is enough to truly delight the customer and remove any frustrations they might have in a branch. Right now, customers aren’t ready to be faced with a purely automated customer experience, although they increasingly view having to use branches and call centres as an inconvenience for many transactions. Getting the balance right is critical. Human interactions still count for a lot, and those customers who use both physical and digital channels still tend to be more loyal and more valuable to their primary bank.

There’s little doubt that the role of the branch, and front desk staff, is evolving significantly. Employees still have an important role to play, and particularly within complex transactions, but increasingly they will see themselves conversing more with customers through online chat or video. This will enable banks to better pool their specialist talent and achieve higher levels of productivity.

Exciting times lay ahead for banks. While chatbots might be our future bankers, right now, it’s critical to consider the bigger picture, and focus on the initiatives that will help drive customer loyalty. It’s important to stay ahead of the competition, but not every emerging innovation needs to be frantically implemented.


— Johnny Karam, ‎Vice President for Middle East, Turkey & Africa at Citrix.