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BusinessDay: Banks go big on bots but to little effect

It’s no use spending billions of rand on technology and AI if the final product can’t answer a simple customer question.

By Johan Steyn, 22 November 2023

The landscape of technological progress has experienced significant breakthroughs in the past 12 months, particularly in the realm of AI. These cutting-edge platforms are progressively being adopted by most big enterprises globally, marking a pivotal shift in operational dynamics.

Predominantly, it’s the banking and financial sectors that are harnessing the potential of these innovations. With substantial monetary resources at their disposal, along with vast repositories of consumer data, banks are uniquely positioned to transform into dominant players in the burgeoning AI-driven business epoch.

Banks are aiming to redefine the industry’s future, carving out a new narrative where technology doesn’t just support business — it drives it.

In the local market, large banks have spent huge amounts on technology, reportedly running into the tens of billions of rand annually. At a recent banking event, I showed the budgetary numbers that are publicly available on a slide as part of my address. One of the delegates — a senior technology leader from one of the big five banks — approached me afterwards and informed me the numbers were wrong. “Our bank spends at least double the number on your slide.” Wow.

That makes me wonder why — in the era of smart technology, large-scale data gathering, intelligent process automation and automated decision engines — our banks get it so horribly wrong. I am referring to customer experience. No matter how much you spend on technology or which of the amazing AI tools you have incorporated: the final judge is always the consumer.

My banking card expires at the end of November. I received an SMS from my bank informing a new card would be delivered to the branch. I signed into the banking app on my smartphone and accessed the chatbot. “Where will you be delivering my card?” I wasn’t sure as the branch where I opened my business account and the branch closest to my office aren’t the same. The chatbot opened our conversation with an enthusiastic welcome message.

Just answer the question

In answer to my message, the bot provided a link to all the bank’s branches across the nation. “But where will you be sending my card?” “Your card will be delivered in 5-7 working days.” “Where?” “For any assistance type your question below and I will help you.” “Where will you deliver my card?” “Your card will be delivered in 5-7 working days.”

I had to contact my business banker to help me. In an email trail of seven messages between him and various of his colleagues, spanning several days, I finally had my answer and I went to collect my card at the branch (the bank wasn’t able to deliver the card at my office.)

A week later I received a WhatsApp message from my bank, informing me that my card was ready for collection. “I have already collected my card,” was my reply. “Your response is invalid.”

It is clear to me that our banks are still getting the basics wrong. Perhaps we, the consumers, should revolt. Our banks don’t love us any more. But where shall we go? They are all getting it wrong and we just have to accept that poor service won’t change despite the promise of technological advancements.


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