National Australia Bank in June will start trialling technology where chat-bots or what NAB calls "virtual agents" handle customer requests online — a task handled by call centre agents today.
NAB will soon start trialling "virtual chat", where an automated online assistant will attempt to answer commonly asked questions for customers via a Web browser, according to the bank's head of direct channels, Direct Sales and Service, Tim Cullen.
The new system's online assistant will provide customers with links to other Web pages, and explanatory images, as well as helping customers through various application forms, such as those for home loans.
"If [customers] are at a particular point in an application, our virtual agent will be able to give specific guidance to them on how to proceed," Cullen told ITRadio.com.au's Smart Call podcast.
However, the virtual agent's intelligence will need time to develop and will initially be capped by NAB management's guess at what consumers really want to know.
"We're trying to guess a lot of the questions our customers are going to ask. Initially we'll probably launch with an overflow to a human chat. But overtime we will build up the knowledge base of those types of questions, and respond to them, and look at ways we can hand them off, not only to chat, but also have someone call them back or also refer them into a branch," he said.
For example, if a customer has questions about a home loan the virtual agent cannot answer, the customer will be able to organise an appointment with the online assistant for a mobile lender to meet them.
"Virtual chat" technology is being judged against the alternative "click-to-chat" technology that NAB has also been trialling with customers. Click-to-chat allows customers to click a button on NAB's website, which then sends a message for its customer service operators to return the call.
Cullen said that although customer feedback on click-to-chat has been positive, the bank has struggled to see the value of it due to the difficulty of measuring and tracking customer behaviour once the click to chat request has been made.
"We don't know what those customers do. Some of them will apply [for a loan] online, but others may well come into a branch or contact centre. So we're really not sure of the overall economics of why we would do [click-to-]chat or roll it out on a larger scale," he said.
NAB flagged its intention to trial such technology last year, signalling a convergence between call centres and its online capability.
Dr Catriona Wallace, director of Callcentres.net, who last year released a study showing that Australians would prefer speaking with robots than with offshore call centre staff, said technology like this will likely result in job cuts. However, she added that "there's a whole need to automate transactional work to make it less mundane for call centre workers and it will raise what call centre agents need to do other than simple credit card enquiries."
"Agents typically take 78 calls per day and if some of that can be automated, it's a much better role for the agent," she said.
As for NAB's customers, Dr Wallace said: "I think they will like it because most customers that will use it immediately will already be customers who have some orientation around Web chat technology," she said.