Would you like to talk to your money? Ally Bank thinks so. The direct banking subsidiary of Ally Financial, Inc. recently announced the expansion of its Ally Mobile Banking app to include Ally Assist, a virtual assistant that responds to customers’ questions in plain speak and is intended to provide a more personalized banking experience.
Ally Assist is in the Ally Mobile banking app for the iPhone and can predict customer needs by analyzing accounts and transactions to present context-aware topics and messages to customers, according to the bank.
What does this really mean? You can talk or text Ally regarding many things, like initiating transfers, bill payments, requesting detailed information on accounts and transactions and obtaining information on interest earned and saving/spending patterns. Think of Ally as your Girl Friday.
Using automated intelligence and customer data profiles, Ally anticipates customers’ needs and approaches them with relevant solutions. Translation: she’ll make suggestions about what you should do. The system "learns" from what you do. Ally will clue you in on what she thinks might be important to you, like the date and amount of a deposit or a duplicate charge that’s posted to your checking account.
Customers initiate their query through talking or typing and then navigate through the different answers and solutions, or initiate a new request. "We opted to not have the solution ‘talk back’ to the customers primarily because of the sensitivity of information to bank accounts," says Diane Morais, president and CEO of Ally Bank.
"This new voice recognition feature in Ally Bank’s mobile app is right at the crossing of two emerging trends – a growing mobile banking usage (51% of mobile users used mobile banking in 2014, according to a Federal Reserve survey), and the demand for voice recognition in mobile apps, (started by Apple Siri and Google voice search)," points out Alex Gerard, personal finance expert and founder of CardsMix.com.
Sebastian Fung, vice president of User Acquisitions at Underground Cellar, a wine upgrades platform, says, "This actually makes me more likely to use Ally instead of other banks. This cuts down on real costs by the bank (less people answering phones), I don’t necessarily bank during the typical banking ‘open hours’ so this makes a lot of sense."
Ally Assist is just one more sign of a changing financial services landscape. "Face-to-face brokerages are quickly being replaced by low-cost online brokerages, banks are Rolling out mobile apps, and loans are being sourced through online comparison portals that allow borrowers to compare dozens of lenders at a glance," says Dan Blacharski, a spokesperson for MoneyLend.net. "Mobile banking has the potential to target an underserved population, which may not be able to visit traditional bank branches due to proximity, time constraints or disability."
The concept of a virtual assistant for banking arises because financial information is complicated, says Keith Brisson, founder of Wealth.ai, a virtual personal banking assistant. "People do not generally look at their money for fun. The traditional way of presenting financial information is through lists and tables. However, when people look at their money, they are usually trying to answer a specific question or perform a specific action. That is where a conversation model – questions and answers using natural language, excels, because if done right, the assistant will reduce the amount of work and time it takes the user to answer the questions they have."
Despite the buzz, Brisson says, "The success of these products will depend on how well they are implemented and how tuned they are to the actual needs of users. Merely making simple queries easier is not enough. These products need to solve actual use cases that people have, and that requires deep understanding of how people think about their finances."
He sees shortcomings. "The fact that these emerging banking assistants are tied to individual banks is also a severe limitation, because the reality is that most people use more than one banking provider. Ultimately, the future lies in a standalone banking assistant, not affiliated with a particular bank, which assists people with their entire financial lives, regardless of which banks and payment services they use."