November 17, 2003

A human face for ATM customer services

With an innovative take on personalised customer service, NCR has prototyped and exhibited its latest ATM (automated teller machine) concept: an on-screen, individually personalised 'avatar' (a cartoon-like character) to guide bank customers through transactions.

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Speaking for NCR Financial Solutions, chief technology officer Mark Grossi told The Wise Marketer that the avatar-driven ATM machines are being actively marketed, having demonstrated the technology using a character called 'Maddy' at a recent Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) e-Business Symposium in Toronto. This article is copyright 2003 TheWiseMarketer.com.

The concept, which was demonstrated using NCR's multi-function Personas 78 ATM, offers a banking service which, even after the novelty wears off, can provide a differentiating factor between competing banks, depending on the features and services made available through the machine.

It also provides an interactive branding channel that actively engages customers (and even potential customers from other banks who have simply stopped to use the convenient ATM), and can pass on brand promises both visually and verbally. And, by linking the avatar with a bank's CRM system, it can also become a tool for personalisation and targeted one-to-one marketing.

The avatar can be used as a channel to sign up users for new services, or to guide them through previously unfamiliar tasks such as cash deposits. When a transaction is selected, the avatar talks the user through the process and can be called upon to provide further information as and when the user needs it.

Your personal personality
The avatar character itself, being computer-generated at the time of the transaction (rather than being a simple pre-recorded image), is completely flexible in its appearance, behaviour, and even tone of voice. There are a number of ways in which the avatar's characteristics can be determined and controlled:

* One for all: The bank can use the avatar to reinforce its own brand. For example, a bank that has a well-known personality already associated with its advertising could use an avatar representation of that personality.

* Customer choice: The customer can be given the option to choose from a range of pre-defined avatar personalities, so that they can deal with a character with whom they are comfortable.

* Automatic selection: The choice of avatar characteristics can also be determined at the time of the transaction, based on the information held about the customer in the bank's back-end CRM (customer relationship management) system. This method could be used to automatically select the avatar's gender, apparent age, appearance, language, voice tone, and even phraseology. Such decisions might be made electronically when the bank card is inserted, or could instead be made in advance by the CRM system.

"Getting the right character is vital," explained Grossi. "At the end of the day it's about promoting trust. People have to be comfortable with the image and voice of the character."

Learned behaviour
But apart from identifying the best character to use when the customer inserts their card, the avatar can also be configured to learn and remember which language the customer prefers to use (for example, in the USA, many consumers prefer to speak Spanish even though they also speak English). The avatar is capable of using sign language to make itself understood, too.

The learning process doesn't stop there, though - the software that drives some existing ATMs has taught the avatar a trick or two as well. The ATM can examine past transactions or sessions (in many cases the three most recent ones), and draw conclusions about the 'average' or 'usual' transaction made by each client. Similar options can then be presented first in an effort to make the client's visit a little easier and quicker. For example, if a customer often asks for their account balance on-screen, then draws 20, and then asks for a printed receipt, the ATM can offer that as a one-button operation - a process not dissimilar to walking into your regular bar and hearing, "The usual, then?"

Coming soon?
"Royal Bank of Canada are looking at the system right now, plus a number of other banks which we aren't naming just yet - particularly in Canada, the UK, and the Asia Pacific region," said Grossi.

When asked when high-street consumers are likely to find themselves talking to an avatar-in-the-wall, Grossi explained: "It won't necessarily be prominent in the traditional high-street cash dispensers for a while yet, but it will be put into use for more complex transactions such as ATM direct cash deposits, for bill payments, mobile top-ups, and the like."

However, according to Grossi, avatar-driven ATMs could be seen in high-streets in trial installations as early as 2004, in Canada and perhaps the UK.

Platforms and upgrades
Asked about the hardware requirements for the software behind the avatar, Grossi explained that there's a minimum hardware requirement, and that many ATMs that are already installed are quite probably suitable. The software runs on Microsoft Windows XP systems, which means that ATMs based on other operating systems would need to be upgraded. Some that use older hardware specifications may also need physical upgrades.

In terms of setting up the service for each ATM operator, Grossi says that NCR can offer complete solutions out-of-the-box, through to any level of software customisation or installation using existing compatible hardware. Ongoing development of the system for each bank can either be handled by the bank's own IT teams, or by NCR's designers and engineers.

Posted by Craig at November 17, 2003 07:14 PM