Now that I have your attention thanks to the title of this post – a Product Evangelist for a company building Virtual Financial Assistants couldn’t possibly be calling them “old news” right? – let me explain. 

I recently received an email promoting an upcoming AI conference and the first paragraph stated that this year’s conference “won’t just be about virtual assistants.” That reference jumped right off the page to me. Are virtual assistants considered old news in AI? Are financial institutions (FIs) tired of hearing about them? Is Bank of America so far ahead with its “Erica” product that FIs have succumbed to not competing?

The hype of the Virtual Financial Assistant (VFA) replacing the mobile banking app as the primary user interface (UI) has yet to materialize, but frankly, we don’t feel it should. A VFA delivers the most value when living within the mobile app (and online banking) and that is something that is well under way – well for customers anyway. 

So, what’s the problem? I think the real issue is that the term “virtual assistant” is thrown around quite a bit in reference to several types of solutions. When considering a true VFA, it’s important to understand what they are (and aren’t). Here are three key points that immediately came to mind as I contemplated this question.

1. Virtual Financial Assistants are not “Voice Banking”

We have had to clear up this misconception in more than a few conversations. VFAs are not the same thing as voice-banking. Conflating the two is both common and not surprising. We’ve all talked to our “Alexa” for years, only to recently correctly recognize it as the virtual assistant software and separate it from the device we were speaking to – Echo, Echo Dot, etc, (Did you know that you can message with Alexa in the Alexa app? Cool!). Similar to Alexa, a VFA is actually the software that personifies a conversational banking solution. Voice is only one UI of a VFA, and while yes, it has been adopted more slowly than anticipated in banking, I wouldn’t say voice is old news just yet. Where the VFA is accessed matters for voice, and as more FIs embed their VFA in the mobile banking app, users will likely grow more comfortable using voice there. Luckily for us, voice is just one UI of our VFA, with messaging and “tap and gesture” adoption picking up the slack as users continue to slowly grow their usage of voice. 

2. Virtual Financial Assistants are not just the same actions in a different channel

When talking with prospective clients, some of the more reluctant FIs will ask “why do my users need another channel to do the same tasks they already can in our mobile app or online banking?” That question identifies a fundamental element that needs to be understood – a VFA shouldn’t be viewed as competition for current channels, but rather an enhancement of them. A VFA can resolve many issues fielded by the call center/live chat, but do it  24/7 and scale infinitely. To enhance the mobile app itself, the VFA provides an easier way to complete tasks than menu-navigation, saving the user time and potential frustration. The VFA can also be trained to answer issue-specific questions (in relatively short order) in time of need (think about the recent pandemic call volume spikes) without having to make major additions/updates to the online banking platform or mobile app.  More advanced VFAs can tackle authenticated transactional capabilities including providing account info, making payments, etc, and reduce the friction in completing them. All enhancements rather than more of the same!

3. Skate to where the puck will be…not where it currently is

Bank of America (BofA) is on the leading edge with their VFA “Erica.” Some would call it the bleeding edge (i.e. expending greater resources because something is so new and untested), but they are seeing a large return for that significant resource investment. BofA has enjoyed 55% adoption (as of Feb ‘21) among mobile users and generated tremendous brand equity thanks to the powerful financial insights they deliver to users using the VFA. They have, and continue to, receive tons of press and multiple awards for delivering real value to their users with these insights. While we can debate the relevance today of VFAs to transactional banking, delivering personalized financial insights is truly the next chapter in retail banking. The days of banks “nickel-and-diming” users for fees are over. Delivering financial insights and wellness to users is a race for loyalty against the fintech challengers – and a VFA is the perfect delivery tool. A VFA allows the user to engage and ask questions about an insight to understand it, just like dealing with a personal banker. The frictionless transactional capabilities of the VFA also lets users take action on an insight with quick “yes” or “no” answers or a couple taps of quick buttons. The VFA’s role in delivering these powerful insights make it more relevant than ever going forward.

**Shameless plug alert** – our ability to couple our VFA with the Insights product from our parent company, Envestnet I Yodlee, places us in a unique position to understand where the puck will be and be a partner to help you skate there!

Now that I think about it…maybe VFAs need their own conference!