Building friendlier fintech

by Joan Warner

I’m not surprised NTT Data Consulting chose RISE New York as the venue for its “Technology & Human: Being Authentic in a Connected World” conference last week. The co-working space in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley supports fintech entrepreneurs making the revolution in digital banking, payments, and lending. People work elbow to elbow, clustered around big tables or sharing a cozy banquette, their creativity fueled by collaboration and a kick-ass coffee bar. This is where NTT Data invited a panel of pros to address the burning question facing financial service providers: How to make the most of technology without coming across to your customers as an unfeeling robot?

robot-916284For the impact investors at Accion Venture Lab, said senior investment officer Amee Patel, financial inclusion means putting people in touch with other people, not just devices. For example, in the US, Accion supports startup StreetShares, an online platform connecting entrepreneurs in the military community with investors—often veterans themselves—who want both a financial and social return. In Kenya, Accion is backing mobile payment platform Kopo Kopo, which is succeeding wildly with merchants by offering not just a reliable electronic payment interface but also cash advances and microlending. When it comes to finance, “different countries have different pain points,” said Patel. Savvy financial service providers don’t just dump new technology on the market at random. They ease customers’ pain.

Remember the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval? It comes from the Good Housekeeping Institute, which tests new consumer products—including every new IoT gadget that comes on the market. Rachel Rothman, the magazine’s chief technologist, studies things like smart refrigerators that stream a grocery list to your phone. Such appliances, made knowledgeable by sensors and Big Data, will soon be so ubiquitous we won’t notice them, said Rothman. She compared technology to water in the old joke where the fish asks, “What’s water?” and added, “The new user interface is no user interface.”

When the panel’s moderator asked the audience which words they associate with banks and banking, answers included “evil,” “fraud,” and “cold.” Jill Castilla, CEO of Citizens Bank of Edmond in Oklahoma, is using technology—specifically, social media—to turn those perceptions around. Castilla, whom American Banker has cited as a top team leader in her industry, mentioned JPMorganChase’s epic Twitter fail in 2013 to warn about what can happen when financial institutions don’t think through their online interactions with the public. Castilla responds personally to customer complaints; in fact, she says, she loves “the haters” because they give her a chance to show her authentic commitment to the community.

NTT Data’s vice president of experience design, Lisa Woodley, used Star Trek characters like Data and the Doctor to illustrate our growing expectations from artificial intelligence. Already, a real-life AI receptionist called Nadine can remember your face and what you talked about last, sense whether you’re in a bad mood, make mild jokes, and show empathy. Could such a robot be a bank teller? A broker? Woodley said financial service providers “need to go from ‘sell, sell, sell’ to ‘solve, solve, solve’” if they’re going to sustain their value proposition in the face of ever-better technology.

The common denominator in all four presentations: customer experience. As it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the costs of getting fintech wrong, because Chase Bank recently replaced all the ATMs at a large branch near Wall Street with new, touch-screen machines. Functionally, they’re nearly identical to the old ATMs. But transactions take longer, the interface is insultingly intrusive, and the machines frequently crash or go out of service. Now, when I need cash, I have to wait in a long line with other miserable account holders for the privilege of using a tablet-like device. What problem did Chase solve for us? That’s a question every financial institution should ask itself before investing in any new tech platform.