The Customer Effect

Inside the creation of USAA’s Alexa skill

  • USAA could give customers a voice channel where they can access their financial information through Amazon's Alexa voice platform
  • The San Antonio, Texas, bank is seeking to distance itself from the chatbot fatigue by pushing insights -- not advice -- to help customers make more sound financial decisions
Inside the creation of USAA’s Alexa skill

USAA is jumping on the voice train.

The San Antonio bank on Wednesday began a 90-day pilot of an Alexa skill for Amazon devices that lets customers check balances, review spending history and get other account insights based on their transactions. If the pilot goes well, the bank could create a new channel for customers to access their financial data and view it in ways that will help them make financial decisions.

Don’t mistake the skill for advice, though, said Darrius Jones, assistant vp at USAA Labs, a division that lets the bank’s customers participate out and provide feedback on its latest innovations.

“It’s really to paint a proper picture of what’s going on with your finances,” he said. “Having sound financial security comes out of making sound decisions, and sound decisions are based on data.”

For example: “Alexa, can I spend $100 on a new phone?”

“You typically spend an average of $200 on electronics in a month.  So far this month you’ve spent $50.  This will leave you with a balance of $2,518.51.”

This approach fits with the industry’s move toward self-service through digital channels. For years, that took the form of transactions like depositing and withdrawing paper money. But now, customers are seeking control instead of (or in addition to) advice when it comes to spending and saving.

For many customers and industry observers, the recent crop of artificial intelligence-powered digital assistants and chatbots has been anticlimactic. It’s let people see their account balances but little more than that.

“We thought there was an opportunity for us to do something different from the Q&A response mechanism that you traditionally see,” Jones said. “You’ll start to see spending advice as more of a mechanism to make a decision than to get some help. We think conversationally is the best way to deliver it.”

USAA’s skill uses technology from Clinc, which uses natural language processing, machine learning and deep neural networks to understand and respond to people. While Capital One’s own technology is keyword driven with scripted commands, Clinc’s allows USAA customers to talk in normal human language, without using keywords.

Other financial firms like TD Ameritrade, Fidelity Investments and Amex offer Alexa skills. Capital One is the only other retail bank to have launched an Alexa skill, with similar capabilities as USAA’s, as well as the ability to pay bills.

USAA, however, isn’t letting people move money via the platform for now because of security concerns.

For the Alexa skill, as with other Labs innovations, USAA customers that opt in to updates receive a direct message from the bank that prompt them to visit USAA Labs online. USAA has gotten requests for Alexa skills in its feedback, Jones said.

But it was through the PYMNTS.com/Alexa Challenge, in which it won the “Easiest to Explain to Mom” designation a year ago that really got the bank interested in the conversational channel — and led to the invitation by Amazon to develop the pilot.

“It was an interesting opportunity to see what a new channel and interface style with a conversational assistant would potentially be with USAA,” Jones said.

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