Banking industry's tech shift has accelerated amid pandemic

·5 min read

TORONTO — When COVID-19 swept across Canada, the Bank of Nova Scotia had a secret weapon in its arsenal: artificial intelligence

As companies sent their employees home to work and businesses temporarily closed, the bank used the technology to identify which customers were on the brink of serious financial trouble.

The bank developed debt consolidation, deferral and loan amortization programs to fit the specific needs of these customers, then had call centres and local branches offer the help directly.

Delinquency rates dropped and customer satisfaction scores rose, all because "we were meshing the traditional and the future," said Phil Thomas, Scotiabank's executive vice-president of customer insights, data and analytics.

The example offers a glimpse of the technology financial services companies have and are dreaming of building on.

Executives like Thomas imagine AI and data will advance so much that these types of offerings and support will become even more extensive.

Financial services, they say, will be highly personalized and what consumers will do with their smartphones or a computer will grow exponentially, but the human touch won’t disappear.

Branches won’t whither or die, but reasons for visiting might change. While customers may no longer need to visit a branch to deposit a cheque, they will still likely do so in order to discuss complicated issues such as mortgage planning.

"To say that there is no need (for branches) is a fallacy," said Rizwan Khalfan, TD Bank Group's chief digital and payments officer.

"There are big moments in life - like planning for retirement — where you may want to still go to the branch and have a face-to-face conversation with the adviser that you've known for decades."

Like Thomas, Khalfan believes AI will figure heavily into the future and his bank has already begun experimenting with it.

TD uses AI to analyze purchases customers make and detect which ones are cyclical — monthly hydro or car payments or money sent to family every holiday.

If the AI finds a customer is likely to have a low balance based on the payments it predicts they will make in the next two weeks, it will send a "nudge" — a notification on TD's app with suggestions for managing the situation.

In 2021, TD's AI will nudge customers to save for retirement and tailor direct investing advice to every experience level — a service Khalfan saw a need for when he gifted his daughter a direct investing account for her 18th birthday.

"She was reluctant," he said. "It would have been good if she could have had self-service, self-learning and become confident in investing decisions."

Another area with potential for AI is payments.

Founder Michael Katchen declined to talk about it, but Toronto-based online investment management company Wealthsimple has been testing its Cash app that lets users easily send money to each other without the clunkiness of bank e-transfers.

Katchen, who says customers wanted "hand-holding" during the pandemic, thinks tailoring financial planning to every life stage will be key.

"Financial planning historically is all about retirement... but when you're trying to engage a younger audience it's so far away that it's really hard to get excited about," he said.

That means companies will focus on spending, careers and homes with younger clients, but gradually teach them about investing and setting financial goals, he said.

Banks will also play with technology adopted during the pandemic or just before it.

A November study by Accenture of more than 47,800 global banking customers —2,000 of them Canadian — showed only 15 per cent had used bank video calls before COVID-19.

Now 46 per cent said they would use video calls when branches reopen and 35 per cent would prefer them to a face-to-face meeting.

Banks may be saddled with reputations for being old-fashioned, but Khalfan and Thomas believe pandemic innovations will stick around and quickly multiply.

They said banks have already accelerated the pace of technology deployment beyond original schedules because of the pandemic, which rapidly convinced reluctant consumers to bank from their couch or made them comfortable with video calls and chatbots.

Banks have also seen competitors — Wealthsimple, Koho and Mogo— circling with fancy apps and large millennial user bases and took it as a sign to head full-throttle towards innovation.

Trust may emerge as a potential obstacle in the rush to digital, as the Accenture study reported that it was "exacerbating the longer-term, pre-COVID-19 trend of diminishing consumer trust."

Only 34 per cent of Canadians in its survey said they trust banks "a lot" to look after their long-term financial well-being, compared with 47 per cent two years ago.

But Katchen argues "I don't think that a digital relationship in any way gets in the way of trust."

He believes technology enhances trust because it becomes quicker and easier to get specialized support.

"In a traditional investment relationship where a client has a financial adviser, that adviser probably has 200 clients and the top 20 clients in that advisers book make up 80 per cent of their business income," he said.

"If a crisis hits they spend 99 per cent of their time on those top 20 clients, whereas what we can do is get in front of clients with an email, with our messaging, with webinars, instantly."

Even with their volume of clients, Thomas envisions the human touch won't disappear.

"Allowing people to choose how they want to bank with us is only going to be more and more important."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2020

Companies in this story: (TSX:BNS, TSX:TD)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press