Chatbot success: Ethical interactions key to maintain trust

Artificial intelligence and customer-focused chatbots are increasingly being deployed by community banks. AI has been in use at community banks for years, helping with internal processes. An Excel spreadsheet qualifies as machine assisted intelligence, after all. These days, querying a database or searching regulatory statutes is made easier with AI; you can remain at your desk and verbally request data that will be delivered in moments. The value of internal AI’s efficiency for banks is well established and getting more advanced.  

When a community bank implements a customer service chatbot on its website, the usefulness may be less immediately clear. The difference in usefulness may come down to the AI’s personality. A virtual office assistant can have the charisma of an old spreadsheet, but a customer-facing chatbot needs a charm school finish and ethical training.

Companies that employ chatbots have a sliding scale of choices when it comes to how the bot behaves, said Dror Oren, co-founder of Kasisto, one of the larger providers of AI for financial institutions. Oren is a leading voice in promoting the responsible development of ethical chatbot personas. Oren said honesty about AI’s presence is rule No. 1.  

“It is never ever okay to be opaque about whether your customers are interacting with man or machine,” Oren wrote in a recent blog post. “Beyond ethics, there are business, cultural and even regulatory reasons for this, but the most important reason lies in the customer experience and making sure that people know when they’re dealing with humans and when they’re dealing with bots. Brands can employ human-like attributes to engender comfort and trust, but it’s critical to establish an identity as a bot early in the interaction.”

The question of persona is an interesting one. Oren believes an intelligence that is upfront about its artificiality need not lack a sense of self. Customers respond more positively to a chatbot that has a name and is self referential.

Another consideration is gender. Whether male, female or gender neutral, Oren strongly suggests the language a bot is programmed to employ never comes off as stereotypical.

When deploying a chatbot, bankers must decide how “smart” it should be. In other words, how deep into a bank’s vault of information should a chatbot go to help a customer? Is the chatbot deployed for straightforward requests, such as retrieving an account balance, or can it walk a customer through an entire loan application process? The latter is being done right now by large institutions.

For community banks, a chatbot will more likely be trained to hand off a customer to a person as soon as a query gets a little complex. Oren said this hybrid model of man and machine working in tandem is becoming standard in financial institutions. Oren underscores the importance of making it perfectly clear which is which. “When the customer is unsure if they’re interacting with a human or a machine, they’ll feel misled, lose trust and have a poor experience,” Oren writes. “The best bots are as close to human as possible but don’t pose as humans. If the customer does notice this difference and suspects that a human has replaced the bot, they may feel an interruption in their experience and in turn, lose trust.”

As chatbots appear at community banks and in every other service industry, there is no guarantee they will all adhere to ethical standards, whether on purpose or not. The Partnership on AI is an organization that brings together academics, researchers and major tech companies to push for ethical AI deployment through education and the ongoing development of ethical standards. With Apple, Google and Amazon on board, PAI has a fighting chance to lead the way into a future in which AI ethics are standardized. PAI’s first tenet is “We will seek to ensure that AI technologies benefit and empower as many people as possible.”

Community banks should have no problem adopting this technology without compromising the integrity of their customer service if they choose a chatbot developer that meets PAI’s tenets. And with tech like Apple’s Siri reaching ubiquity, customers are learning to use AI to their advantage in many spheres of their lives. Oren told the Futuretech Podcast in April he thinks this familiarity, sooner than later, will help elevate chatbot exchanges at banks from simple customer service requests to sales opportunities.