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Rise of the chatbots - Do You Need a Relationship Manager?

Having a relationship with a bank manager, in any bank in Nigeria, is a luxury afforded to the very few; I would hazard a guess and say the top 1% percentile of Nigerians have access to a customer relationship manager. This person, tasked with ensuring you make the right financial decisions, based on their perceptions of you, your finances and the wider economic landscape, is how those primarily with a high net worth, make their financial decisions. All the data sets available in the physical world are funneled through one, almost certainly flawed, human being.

The banking sector, to which I’ve been a part of for over 20 years, is fiercely competitive when it comes to attracting and retaining affluent customers, who require private banking. Interest rates + unique service offerings + customer service and relationship management is where accounts are won and lost. Banks in Nigeria targeted the top of the pyramid - there is little concern or time spent trying to cultivate long-term banking relationships with those at the bottom of the pyramid.

A typical banking strategy follows as such; deposits from the Masses/Mass Affluents’ Savings & Current accounts provide Liquidity Margins from Lending to Commercial and Corporate Businesses, which leads to Interest Income Fees from providing other services across the customer segments - Non-Interest Income. The closer connected relationships with the customer typically would result in a larger share of wallet and customer profitability. Therefore, it makes business sense to invest in these resources for high end potentially profitable customers, but how do you do that at the lower end of the market, where there are high volume but low value transactions?

How do you pursue a differentiation strategy at the bottom of the pyramid where the masses are and the transactions numbers are sizeable? Customer relationship managers, and their salaries, are - at scale - untenable and unprofitable for the banks, which is why, ipso facto, the bottom of the pyramid has remained unbanked for so long.

For me, what the smart banker will now do, is look at how to provide a service for low value, but high volume of customers; How will they provide a customer-centric service that is affordable to the customer and profitable to the provider?

My answer to almost any questions around scale, is technology; machine learning, AI and chatbots are poised to take over the role of the traditional customer relationship manager, in numbers we cannot even imagine yet. And importantly, they will do the job better, faster and cheaper, by making informed decisions based on thousands of data points and machine-led behavioural analysis. Not on emotion, and certainly not dependent on how someone feels about you, at a certain time on a certain day. AI-powered chatbots will know you better than Mr. Adeyemi from your local branch, even though you’ve been dealing with him personally for the last 8 years. Trust me. I believe some, in the short run, will mourn the removal of emotion from financial services, even though they are unlikely to have received exemplary face-to-face customer service from so many of our banking institutions. As humans, we like habit - and if your habit has always been to speak to someone in-branch, and have them give you a number of choices based on their assertions, then it’s going to be a difficult habit to break. However, let me counter that with the fact that customer relationship chatbots are also built on habit; your habits captured on GPS, Google, your mobile phone, and that are recorded and preserved in an emotional vacuum, free of human error.

AI is essentially a blow-by-blow account of all of your habits - and it can power decision making faster than a human, drawing on vast data sets that you are recording at each and every step, which can then in turn deliver customised decision making to the customer; just like no two customers are the same, no artificial two chatbots are the same.

The bottom of the pyramid will be the first to benefit from the chatbot revolution. The personal services chatbots offer, will help to re-engage an entire segment of society - the unbanked and under-banked, providing invaluable advice and support for millions. Advice and financial signposting, for so long the preserve of the affluent [those whose deposits pay for the customer relationship managers’ salaries] will now be available to all. For free. And it won’t be peppered with human bias or error. Everyone with a mobile phone will have a customer relationship manager in their pocket; one that doesn’t discriminate on a personal basis. One that knows you almost better than you know yourself. The top of the pyramid will always have support; be it via person or machine. Chatbots and AI are going to power the masses when it comes to customer experience and customer relationships. This is how we will achieve greater financial inclusion in Nigeria. Frictionless, scalable, in fact - limitless.

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