The coronavirus outbreak has been a harrowing event, forcing people to shelter in place, social distance and limit excursions to essential stores. But as disruptive as this COVID-19 pandemic has been for traditional business operations, it’s been a boon for digital products and services.
Consider intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs), many of which have fumbled through fits and starts as companies seek the sweet spot of human-like congress — without the human. A single bad chatbot experience is enough to send people running to people for help.
At least one virtual agent is hitting the mark: Bank of America’s Erica, which enables customers to check account balances, track spending trends, and request payment deferrals, among other tasks, via voice or text. Stoked by consumers’ urgency to manage personal finances during the coronavirus outbreak, Erica added 1 million users a month from March through May, bringing its user count to 14 million, says Aditya Bhasin, CIO of consumer and wealth management technology at BofA.
The uptick in queries lodged with Erica suggests that consumers are ready to seek more help from algorithms and natural language processing (NLP) engines. Erica enables “that seamless connection between high tech and high touch,” Bhasin tells CIO.com. It also underscores the broad move to digital services, a shift rendered essential across many sectors as coronavirus concerns drive adoption of contactless technologies.
A voice assistant star is born
At age 2, Erica has found her niche among BofA’s digital products, though her conceptual origin dates to at least 2016, when the bank observed more people consuming news, shopping and banking using mobile applications and smartphones. BofA began to ask: How could it streamline the user experience in a way that is both natural and frictionless? The bank homed in on its answer by 2017 when it noticed the soaring popularity of voice-based assistants such as Amazon.com Alexa and Google Assistant. People became “enamored by the voice construct,” Bhasin says.
Bhasin and others assembled a cross-functional team of user experience designers, software engineers, digital banking experts, compliance and other specialists to create Erica, which launched in June 2018. Her early features were basic: FAQs, search and assistance navigating BofA’s banking services, money transfers and peer-to-peer money exchange. But by November 2018, BofA began rolling out personalized, proactive insights based on the data gleaned from millions of transactions about how consumers spend their money and where.
Erica, which garnered an IDG CIO 100 award for technology innovation, began helping clients manage their financial lives, while freeing up BofA staff to serve clients with more complex needs. “We think of Erica’s ability to deliver insights as the ability to deliver advice at scale,” Bhasin tells CIO.com.
These services include:
- Balance Watch, which notifies clients when their estimated balance, based on typical spending and deposits, is trending toward $0 in the next 7 days so they can take action and avoid falling in the red.
- Spend Path, which provides a weekly snapshot of month-to-date spending relative to typical spending to help manage cash flow.
- Subscription Monitor, which analyzes recurring charges and notifies clients of potential duplicate bills, or when a charge or membership fee increases unexpectedly. Erica helped save one client as much $600 in a single year by alerting them to multiple subscriptions for music, streaming sites and other services they had forgotten about, Bhasin says.
- Enhanced Bill Reminders, which alerts clients to upcoming BofA bills and third-party eBills, and helps schedule payments.
- FICO Score Tracker, which ensures clients are aware of FICO score changes. If a client’s FICO score drops, Erica may suggest a tool that can help them improve their credit.
Proactive insights provide comfort during the pandemic
BofA is banking on the richness of this enhanced functionality to bring along new demographic cohorts, a bet that appears to be paying off, as clients that previously expressed ambivalence about digital and mobile services climbed on board during the pandemic. During April, Baby Boomers comprised 23 percent of BofA’s first-time digital users, a sliver of the bank’s 39 million active digital users.
Machine learning algorithms drive much of Erica’s functionality today, though BofA’s phalanx of experts curated Erica’s early functionality. Analyzing millions of queries clients made in call centers and via the search bars of digital banking channels, BofA injected this business logic into NLP engines that fuel Erica today. The team regularly trains and modifies Erica based on user feedback and behaviors.
Among the biggest challenges in building Erica included figuring out what queries to focus on first, given the vast ocean of natural language constructions and nuances clients have used in banking with BofA, Bhasin says. The number of unique ways clients can ask financial questions of Erica has doubled since its launch, from around 200,000 to more than 500,000.
To date, Erica has completed approximately 150 million requests for clients. Fifteen million of those queries came in April, as clients requested help managing their finances. Since mid-March, Erica has helped approximately 350,000 clients request payment deferrals through its Client Assistance Program, which helps customers who are having trouble meeting anything from their credit card to auto-loan obligations. Learning from a new influx of questions contextualized by the pandemic, Erica now understands more than 60,000 coronavirus-related terms, questions and requests, reducing the volume of questions coming into client care channels.
“We’ll constantly be on this improvement path — learn, improve, learn, improve — to focus on what the client needs and connecting them to the right resources and people that we have,” Bhasin says. “All of the other stuff is noise.”
Moreover, Erica provides a great measuring stick for how BofA plans to transform the client experience with AI. Bhasin says that future iterations of the solution will deliver holistic financial guidance and support, from banking to cards, loans, investing, planning and wealth management.