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Customer Servants


Robots don’t have to steal jobs. Nick Cowen looks at how one bank is using AIs to produce new roles for workers.
Image: ©ABSA Image: ©ABSA

One of the biggest challenges facing the world right now is how artificial intelligences and automation will affect the work of the future. Will AIs and robots replace manual labour? How will humans adapt to a world in which traditional skills could be surplus to requirements?

One area that’s been transforming along these lines over the years is banking. All over the world, as internet services proliferate and online transacting becomes commonplace, banks are closing physical branches. The prevailing ethos is that the cost savings and convenience of online banking beat out soft benefits of keeping branches open in marginal areas. In the US, Wells Fargo alone is shutting 400 branches this year.

Here in South Africa, however, one bank is experimenting with a different model that sees humans working with the AIs, rather than against them. Last year, Absa overhauled several of its branches as part of a pilot initiative looking at the role of the teller in the future.

The bank has deployed sophisticated AI and chatbot interfaces in many of its online banking environments (see “Human, all too human”), so when it came to designing a “branch of the future” template, it looked at bringing these into the physical space for self-service too. Instead of replacing tellers with touchscreens, though, it moved employees out from behind their desks and banking windows, and, equipped with an iPad that runs the AI routines and can guide customer queries, has them roaming about the branch, helping customers.

The idea is that the tablets bring the sophistication of a cutting-edge customer service app that “knows” what you want before you do, and has comprehensive product knowledge, but humans remain the gatekeepers who can focus on providing service with a smile.

“Sometimes, it’s the vibe of humans that appeals to humans,” says Marius de la Rey, chief executive of customer channels, distribution and coverage at Absa. “It’s the psychological gap.”

Absa says the initiative has been well received by its customers and staff, and it plans to use it in more branches. The main focus has been to minimise the aspects of banking that customers find frustrating, such as queuing or being sent from pillar to post between departments, and having to fill out forms and documents numerous times.

Humour bot

“Machines are very good at certain tasks, such as processing big data and turning it into customer insights, but they’re terrible at understanding jokes and cultural nuances, and displaying empathy,” says Jan Moganwa, chief executive for customer solutions at Absa Retail and Business Banking.

“In situations where you’re feeling vulnerable, like when your credit card has been stolen, you want to interact with someone who can share your pain. Machines aren’t very good at that.”

Humans, on the other hand, may struggle to keep vast amounts of product knowledge in their head, or not be aware of a service that would deliver benefits to the person they are currently helping.

What does this mean for employees in the long run? As design and innovation consultant Rob Girling puts it, social and creative intelligence are the two things that AIs will struggle with when it comes to being able to replace humans at work. Focusing on these as core skills could be an answer for safeguarding work opportunities in the future.

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