NAB sees Amazon Alexa integration as pointing to the future of banking

NAB said the use of voice assistants and other third-party banking channels is a 'natural evolution' of the use of digital channels.

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The National Australia Bank (NAB) has announced integrating with Amazon Alexa, allowing customers to ask the voice-activated assistant certain questions about their bank account when the service goes live in Australia next month.

According to executive general manager of digital and innovation Jonathan Davey, when looking at the way the bank thinks consumers will interact with technology over the next decade or so, voice activation is the clear forerunner.

"We fundamentally believe as an organisation the way we need to be able to provide services to customers is changing and we're in a unique position where we're fortunate enough to be able to work with some of the most interesting and innovative companies around the world," Davey told ZDNet.

Davey -- who oversees the bank's innovation arm, NAB Labs -- said that by partnering with the likes of Amazon and Google, NAB has visibility about how other organisations are reinventing the way consumers deal with service providers.

See also: The future of digital will be human-centric and voice will reign supreme

Reflecting on his own use of voice assistants in his personal life, Davey said their presence starts to change people's behaviour. Davey uses a voice-activated assistant to set his morning alarm, and while he knows he can do it fairly easily on his phone, performing the task verbally allows him to do it while performing other tasks -- and before he forgets.

"You just find yourself interacting and asking questions," he added. "The way we engage with technology is changing and increasingly we're using voice. As a bank, we think the opportunity for our customers to be able to use those services is just a natural evolution of the use of digital channels."

NAB launched its voice-activated Talk to NAB offering in October, allowing customers to ask basic banking questions such as how to replace a lost card or reset their password.

Talk to NAB runs via Google Home or a smartphone with the Google Assistant installed, and when Amazon Alexa becomes available in Australia next month, NAB customers will be able to ask their Echo device similar questions about their bank account.

"It's about taking away friction, reducing pain-points, and about making it as simple as we can for customers," Davey added.

NAB isn't the only company announcing the launch of Alexa skills on Thursday; Australian real estate giant REA Group is launching a voice-powered property news report for Alexa, while budget mobile operator Amaysim will allow customers to perform tasks such as check their account balance and top-up their data via Alexa.

Similarly, online services marketplace Airtasker and tradesman-hiring platform Hipages have both launched Alexa skills, as has Telstra and competing bank Westpac.

Davey believes that as more integrations occur, customer take up will run parallel, and it will soon become somewhat of a default way to interact with service providers.

To Davey, the Alexa integration is one of the first steps towards providing access to NAB through a third-party channel.

"We believe that will continue to grow over the coming months and years and that's all about providing ease and simplicity to our customers," he told ZDNet.

"In an environment of open banking, making sure that we provide access to NAB services through the channels our customers are engaging in is important."

The plan is to eventually reach a place where customers can interact with home assistants seamlessly, and without having to provide PIN or other authentication information.

"At this stage, the information that you can access is account balances -- which is obviously private information -- but it is the next step from the frequently asked questions and we need to make sure that if we were to go subsequently into payments, then we need to re-evaluate security again," he explained.

"There's a balance we're trying to strike between ease and convenience and ensuring the security is there and we think we've got that right, but it's absolutely critical that security is maintained."

That's where Davey said he can see a place for voice biometrics.

"Voice biometrics is something that we are actively watching and learning and looking at and are doing some experimentation in," he said. "So I see that's the way it will go over time, but again we want to make sure it's 100 percent secure."

"At this stage, we're fairly comfortable with PIN, but we'll continue to look at those kinds of options."

For the 2017 financial year, NAB reported AU$5.285 billion in statutory net profit, up from the AU$352 million reported for the 2016 financial year.

While handing down its results, NAB promised an additional investment of AU$1.5 billion over three years in a bid to ensure the bank is ready for the changing, "digital-first" world.

"The environment is one of rapid and constant change," the company told its shareholders in November. "Our customers are now largely 'digital-first' and expect seamless, personal experiences."

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