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Banking bots highlight conversational commerce trend

Clint Boulton | May 5, 2017
Western Union has built a chatbot that lets consumers wire money by conversing with a digital assistant in Facebook Messenger.

Fellahi says that Facebook, which began allowing consumers to create chatbots in Messenger in April 2016, has made it easy for Western Union to integrate chatbot technology into Messenger by providing access to its APIs as well as additional support and consulting.


Network effects are key

Western Union has its own digital services unit and it could have built its own chatbot, as Capital One and others in finserv have done. But Kellahi says it is important for Western Union to tap into the powerful network effects of Messenger. He likened it to joining consumers' conversations in progress.

"It's important to be more customer-centric," Kellahi says. "Where do our customers want to meet us? What are they already familiar with? Which ecosystem are they spending most of their time in? It's about joining them in the conversation or like waiting for people to come to your house or meet at an important café."

Even so Kellahi wouldn't rule out exploring additional chatbot capabilities and other services, such as voice-based assistants like Amazon's Alexa. For now, he says Messenger allows Western Union to experiment with certain elements "and as we learn more we can build more sophisticated things and that is the impetus here." He says that while the bot is available only in the U.S. Western Union expects to expand its use to other countries.

Western Union is hardly the only finserv firm tapping Messenger to facilitate transactions. Wells Fargo is testing a chatbot to assist consumers in basic functionality, such as checking their accounts and resetting their passwords, via Messenger. The U.S. bank said is piloting the virtual assistant with several hundred employees, and plans to extend testing to a few thousand customers later this spring. Mastercard meanwhile launched Messenger chatbots that allow consumers to order and pay for food and gift cards through Messenger.

While finserv chatbots hold the promise of making consumers' lives easier, missteps can court risks for providers who fail to master superior customer services, wrote Peter Wannemacher, a Forrester Research analyst, in an August 2016 report. Potential problems include a consumer erroneously sending money three times or paying a bill wrong, which would reflect poorly on the brand.

“If a person using a chatbot has a problematic or potentially incomplete bot interaction regarding their money, they can be left annoyed, upset or even scared,” Wannemacher wrote.


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