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​NAB pilots 'virtual banker' for SMEs

The bank plans to add voice capability to the chatbot to allow customers to use the feature 'on the go'.

The National Australia Bank (NAB) has launched its latest artificial intelligence (AI) play, a digital virtual banker for its business customers.

According to NAB chief operating officer Antony Cahill, the chatbot, born out of the newly established Customer Journey team, is aimed at making life easier for the bank's small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) customers.

"Our research shows that two thirds of Australian SMEs cite dealing with administrative tasks as taking a lot of effort, and our customers desperately want to spend more time on their business and less time on dealing with admin tasks," the COO said.

"We're working hard to make banking an easy and supportive experience for our customers, and technology like this helps save business customers critical time. When they have a question about their banking, our virtual banker is there to help solve it 24 hours a day, seven days a week; it's a simple and seamless on-the-go experience."

Cahill expects to continue development of the virtual banker over coming months to cover additional questions and further guidance for the bank's business customers.

According to NAB executive general manager of business transformation Anne Bennett, the online chatbot has also been designed to develop into a voice-based system.

"Whilst at the moment you can talk to it, chat with it online, we'd love for you to be able to use your voice to activate it, to ask it questions, as our business customers are driving around," she said on Monday.

The AI behind the virtual assistant is derived from real-life customer enquiries, with more than 13,000 variants of the 200 questions the virtual banker can answer, NAB said.

In the event of a customer's question not able to be answered, the customer will be directed to a human banker.

The trial follows a testing and development phase, which NAB said resulted in around 75 percent of participants reporting that a virtual banking experience was a "highly desirable offering that would help them with their banking needs".

The chatbot and newly launched walkthrough tutorial videos for NAB Connect users have been developed by NAB's Customer Journey teams, which are charged with working on the "customer experience".

"We currently have a number of different streams of work under way, with almost 1,000 employees across various areas of the bank -- from bankers to product specialists, marketing experts, and technologists -- working together on these projects and delivering at pace," Cahill added.

NAB relaunched its mobile banking app in December, which NAB executive general manager of digital Todd Copeland told ZDNet was more of a complete experience, rather than simply an app.

With the updated app comes new features, including the ability for customers to transfer funds using the recipient's mobile number -- a move in line with the instantaneous new payments platform project the Reserve Bank of Australia will launch later this year.

Another feature is Visa card customisation that allows users to temporarily block cards, turn off online shopping, disable PayWave functionality, and prevent cash withdrawals from ATMs.

Customers are also able to instantly use newly approved personal Visa credit cards with a digital contract feature through NAB Pay for contactless transactions of less than AU$100, negating the need for a physical card.

For the first half of the 2017 financial year, NAB reported AU$2.55 billion in after-tax profit -- a 246.1 percent turnaround from the AU$1.74 billion loss reported last year.

For the six months to March 31, 2017, cash earnings were AU$3.39 billion, an increase of 2.3 percent, on revenue from ordinary activities of AU$8.64 billion, down 4.7 percent year over year.

During the half, NAB saw mobile logins to internet banking increase by 22 percent year on year, while transactions via digital channels increased by 12 percent over the same period a year prior. New product online applications increased by 50 percent; in particular, mortgage enquiries via mobile experienced a 50 percent increase over the same half last year.