Rise of the Bots

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Bots are set to take over the global financial system and the United Bank for Africa seems to have taken the lead in harnessing their powers to revolutionise banking in Nigeria, writes Solomon Elusoji

One Saturday morning, recently, this reporter, still in his pyjamas, logged into Facebook and searched for ‘UBA Chatbanking’. Within seconds he was conversing with an internet bot christened Leo, who helped him to set up a bank account within minutes and completed his debut financial transactions on the UBA platform, like purchasing a recharge card and making a credit transfer.

An internet bot is a software application that performs automated tasks by running scripts over the internet. It performs simple, structurally repetitive tasks much more quickly than is humanly possible. The internet as we know it today would not be possible without bots. Web crawlers like Googlebot allow us to quickly find the most useful information by searching through millions of webpages in seconds.

Although bots can also be used for malicious reasons, some of the world’s biggest brands are using it to revolutionise the way they do business.

In April 2016, social media giant, Facebook, started to allow businesses deliver automated customer support, e-commerce guidance, content and interactive experiences through chatbots. Through its Messenger Platform’s Send/Receive API, bots were now able to send more than just text. They were able to respond with structured messages that include images, links and call-to-action buttons. These could let users make a restaurant reservation, review an e-commerce order and do more things like swipe through product carousels and pop out to the web to pay for a purchase. Expectedly, with around a billion users, some of the world’s biggest brands like CNN and Wells Fargo launched bots on the platform to automate some of their most important customer-facing processes.

Last January, Pan-African financial institution, United Bank for Africa (UBA), became the first Nigerian bank to launch a chatbot on the Messenger app, with a view to changing the face of e-banking. The company launched Leo, the UBA Chat Banker who enables customers to make use of their social media accounts to carry out key banking transactions.

UBA’s leadership is not a surprise. The bank was incorporated in Nigeria as a limited liability company after taking over the assets of the British and French Bank Limited who had been operating in Nigeria since 1949. In 2005, it merged with Standard Trust Bank and became one of the leading providers of banking and other financial services on the African continent. The Bank provides services to over 14 million customers globally, through one of the most diverse service channels in sub-Saharan Africa, with over 1,000 branches and customer touch points and robust online and mobile banking platforms. Moreover, UBA was the first Nigerian bank to make an Initial Public Offering, following its listing on the NSE in 1970. It was also the first Nigerian bank to issue Global Depository Receipts. This, the launch of Leo, is another of its many firsts.

At the official launch of Leo, which took place in Lagos on a bright Thursday, customers of the bank were given a step by step demonstration on the novel way of delivering lifestyle and quality banking through the Facebook Messenger chat platform.

“This is the first time that a financial institution in Africa has come up with this manner of solution to simplify the way customers transact,” a press statement from UBA said. “Something that has become necessary in today’s fast-paced world with demands for quick-time transactions and response.

“With the launch of the Chat Banking, customers will be able to open new accounts, receive instant transaction notifications, check their balances on the go, transfer funds and airtime top up. They will also be able to confirm cheques, pay bills, apply for loans, freeze accounts, request for mini statements, amongst other things.”

At the occasion, the Group Managing Director, UBA, Mr. Kennedy Uzoka, said that the launch of Leo is part of initiatives aimed at putting the bank’s customers first with UBA continuously developing strategies aimed at easing transactions for the bank’s numerous users, while ensuring utmost safety of their transactions.

Uzoka said, “The formulation of this product, is consistent with the bank’s customer first philosophy, where we are doing things not the way we like, but focusing on what the customers want, where they want it, and in the exact platform they want it.

“At UBA, we have been working with technology giants that have the global capacity to ensure not only seamless but also effortless banking for millions of our customers across Africa. We at UBA, have collaborated with Facebook to come up with this innovation that is capable of revolutionising the way banking is done in Africa,” he said. Uzoka noted that Leo will in the nearest future, show up on other social media platforms and added that all it takes to enjoy the services is simply to have a Facebook account.

As he unveiled the character of Leo, Uzoka stated: “Leo being an intelligent personality will give you feedback instantaneously as you transact your business on the platform. A solution that is from the customer’s standpoint and is easy to use by anyone.”

Also speaking at the launch of Leo, the Group Head of Online Banking at UBA, Mr. Austine Abolusoro, who conducted a step by step demonstration on the working of Leo, reiterated that Leo is not just a chat machine, but an artificial intelligence personality meant to address any type of banking concerns raised by customers.

“Leo is ready and waiting to help with most transactions and to deliver any form of banking services. Leo is operating a lifestyle banking platform on Facebook Messenger to assist with your transactions while chatting with your friends and business partners. The security with this platform is that for every transaction, an OTP (One Time Password) is generated to the phone number that is registered on your account.”

He explained that with Leo your banking needs become easy and simple, as simple as chatting with loved ones.

Although UBA seems to have taken the lead, it is expected that other banks will also borrow from the initiative.

“Chatbots in banking are a digital solution that is relatively inexpensive to develop and maintain,” Mai-Hanh Nguyen, writing for Business Insider, says. “For starters, chatbots require less coding than standalone banking apps. And the current growth in popularity of messaging platforms saves banks the cost of developing their own channels, as well as saving on data storage thanks to chatbots’ cloud-based systems.”

However, the artificial intelligence technology behind bots will have to improve exponentially if they are to eat up the financial system. Leo, for example, despite his many capabilities, still has a static personality. It does not understand nuance or semantics or human oddity and works best in strictly contextualised terms.

“For at least the foreseeable future, chatbots won’t be replacing humans in contact centre jobs,” Shep Hyken, writing for Forbes, says. “At this point, chatbots will only replace some of the tasks that people are now handling – especially lower-level requests, questions and complaints. The best chatbot systems can recognise customer frustration and switch the interaction to a human in the company’s support centre.”