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.\n\nConsider intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs), many of which have fumbled through fits and starts as companies seek the sweet spot of human-like congress \u2014 without the human. A single bad chatbot experience is enough to send people running to people for help.\n\nAt 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.\n\nThe 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 \u201cthat seamless connection between high tech and high touch,\u201d 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.\n\nA voice assistant star is born\n\nAt 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 \u201cenamored by the voice construct,\u201d Bhasin says.\n\nBhasin 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\u2019s 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.\n\nErica, 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. \u201cWe think of Erica\u2019s ability to deliver insights as the ability to deliver advice at scale,\u201d Bhasin tells CIO.com.\n\nThese services include:\n\nProactive insights provide comfort during the pandemic\n\nBofA 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\u2019s first-time digital users, a sliver of the bank\u2019s 39 million active digital users.\n\nMachine learning algorithms drive much of Erica\u2019s functionality today, though BofA\u2019s phalanx of experts curated Erica\u2019s 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.\n\nAmong 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.\n\nTo 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.\n\n\u201cWe\u2019ll constantly be on this improvement path \u2014 learn, improve, learn, improve \u2014 to focus on what the client needs and connecting them to the right resources and people that we have,\u201d Bhasin says. \u201cAll of the other stuff is noise.\u201d\n\nMoreover, 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.