'Erica, why do I need a mobile wallet?': Active use of AI in banking depends on the value proposition

| by Will Hernandez
'Erica, why do I need a mobile wallet?': Active use of AI in banking depends on the value proposition

Photo courtesy Bank of America

Editor's note: Bank of America announced on Friday that its mobile virtual assistant, "Erica," has now been adopted by 2 million customers, doubling "her" user base within less than a month of rollout.

That's impressive, to be sure. But a more telling statistic will be the number of customers who continue to use the AI-driven technology on a day-to-day basis as many more months go by.

(In our view, one key to active use would be a feature that allows a customer to get cash from an ATM simply by saying "Erica, I need $80 from the nearest ATM — and directions.")

Friday's announcement brought to mind a blog by Will Hernandez, editor of ATM Marketplace's sister publication Mobile Payments Today. The piece ran shortly after Erica debuted, and made some observations worth keeping in mind as Bank of America continues its Erica experiment and, inevitably, other financial institutions jump on the AI bandwagon.

For the past couple of years, financial institutions have explored how AI can help them in several areas, such as reducing costs, enhancing revenue, eliminating fraud and improving the customer experience.

One of the most recent AI efforts is Bank of America's Erica, a virtual assistant focused on the customer experience when launched three months ago. The financial services player claims it is the first widely available AI-driven virtual assistant of its kind in the industry. 

The bank recently announced 1 million mobile banking users have accessed Erica's features to search for transactions, view balance information and bills, and obtain their credit scores and account numbers.

While this figure represents only 4 percent of the bank's 25 million-plus mobile banking clients, at least one industry analyst deemed it as progress for Bank of America.

"Given the staggered rollout and passive nature of Erica — sitting idle, waiting to be called upon — one million users is decent adoption so far," Emmett Higdon, director of the digital banking practice at Javelin Strategy & Research, told Mobile Payments Today in an email. "The real question remains, how many of those customers will be repeat users? Were they satisfied with the experience? Did they get what they need?"

Bank of America could not provide specific details about how customers use Erica, but a spokeswoman did share some insights with Mobile Payments Today.

"So far, clients have been tapping [to interact with Erica] the most," according to the spokeswoman. "Talking and texting are used about equally after tapping/gesture."

Erica (a play on the last five letters of the bank's name) "appears" as a small, circular icon in the bottom, right corner of any page a user visits within the mobile banking app. Customers activate her by tapping the icon.

The spokeswoman said it was too early to determine the average time users spent with Erica, or whether the virtual assistant is prompting greater use for the mobile app. But the bank is more than pleased with the early numbers.

"It just goes to show how quickly we can grow, and we expect the numbers to continue to grow," she said. 

Bank of America customers did not specifically ask for an AI-driven assistant; the FI developed and introduced Erica as a way to anticipate future needs.

"Our clients are increasingly asking for mobile services that make their lives easier, and Erica is becoming a growing choice for its convenience and personal solutions," Michelle Moore, head of digital banking at Bank of America, said in a press release about the million-user milestone. "As we continue to advance our work on AI-driven developments, it is important that we listen to our users today and further enhance Erica to align to client feedback to better meet and anticipate needs." [The bank said in its announcement Friday that it was doing just that.]

Bank of America might be on to something with Erica in terms of the customer experience and what consumers want from their most trusted brands.

Higdon shared a data point from a Javelin survey, showing that "mobile banking users are interested in voice control as a way to simplify and streamline interactions."

In the survey, conducted last year, half of all mobile banking users said they were interested in voice controls. And this group is not just limited to the millennial demographic — 58 percent of users between the ages of 35 and 44 are interested in voice controls.

"Erica has been programmed to help customers with the most common features and functions in the app — many of which the customer may not even be aware of," Higdon said. "When customers ask Erica for their routing number, it's likely they do not know where to find it in the app."

Bank of America is adding new features to Erica that are intended to help customers with beefier tasks, such as mobile onboarding and the instant addition of a newly approved credit card to a digital wallet.

Another new feature puts human help within reach with a chat option that connects to a specialist who can help the user to complete the account-opening application within the mobile banking app. This chat feature addresses a major pain point consumers have experienced with mobile banking — i.e., difficulties with the mobile application process that necessitate a visit to a bank branch for help.

How often customers will use the new features remains to be seen. And the larger question might be whether Erica can make a compelling case that she is useful, and even necessary, to the user. 

"The bigger challenge with more advanced functionality like digital wallets is in helping customers understand the value proposition, not with onboarding," he said. "'Erica, why do I need a mobile wallet?' serves more customers' needs than 'Erica, add my debit card to Apple Pay.'"

Topics: Bank / Credit Union, Omnichannel Banking, Software, Trends / Statistics

Companies: Bank of America

Will Hernandez
Will Hernandez has 14 years of experience ranging from newspapers to wire services and trade publications. Before becoming Editor of MobilePaymentsToday.com, he spent two years as the content manager for PaymentsJournal.com, a leading payments industry news aggregator and information hub published by Mercator Advisory Group. Will spent four years covering the payments industry as an associate editor for multiple publications in SourceMedia's Payments Group based in Chicago. View Will Hernandez's profile on LinkedIn

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