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Challenging conventional thinking - FinovateSpring 2017 (Day Two)

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Ian McKenna

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For me the outstanding demonstrations of the second day came from companies who were really throwing down the gauntlet to challenge conventional thinking and showing services that could transform major parts of the financial services industry in a very few years. These almost all focused on making more use of non-traditional forms of data to improve customer services, outcomes and achieve greater profitability.

When considering these in this context it is important to recognise that Finovate rules preclude firms showing vapourware service that are not yet built. While many offerings presented are still in their early stages slides and videos are prohibited, you have to show real software.

From the perspective of most traditional financial advisors the session from Hedgeable AI will be the proposition they will consider most controversial. Co-founder Matt Kane predicted that we will not need financial advisors for most of their current tasks within a few years. While presenting his artificial intelligence bot Katana he said he believes this will be capable of doing anything a financial advisor can do.

As part of the presentation Kane referenced a recent study identifying that as many as 61% of all jobs in the US financial service industry could be replaced by bots. Speaking to CTO Sid Sharma after the show he suggests you don't need advisors to do most of what they do right now, but accepts they are needed for more complicated stuff, “not for things like to checking to see if you are on target to meet your goals or selecting portfolios”. He identifies that “trust needs to be established but who said it had to be by a human”. At this point I suspect that there will be some readers of this blog on the verge of cardiac arrest.

My own perspective is that while eventually I do see financial planning and advice as services that within a couple of decades will be fully automated, and indeed virtually invisible I believe that point is at least a decade and a half away. However, when you see what Hedgeable have achieved the timeline does become questionable.

In the demo Hedgeable showed the bot identifying the maximum level of contribution a person could make to an IRA and the sources from which funds can be taken to pay such contribution. It could also present information to consumers to alleviate customer concerns if the market turns downwards. Perhaps the most sophisticated solution they showed was the ability of Katana to use personal financial management aggregation to examine an individual’s monthly expenditure and identify savings they could achieve in order to have money they could invest.

It might be tempting to dismiss Kane’s views, but having spent a couple of hours with his Co-founder and brother Mike together with Sid Sharma in London recently looking at their technology stack, Kane deserves to be listened to.

Using the experience they have gathered over the last six years involving tens of thousands of web chats and combining them with artificial intelligence the company can understand customer behaviour in ways most advisors and financial institutions can only dream of. They can provide a far better understanding of on-boarding, customer retention and support needs.

By understanding how much money people will bring with them companies can improve the targeting of offers relating to what customers want. Equally they can identify the behaviour that might mean a customer might be likely to leave and how much support they will need to keep them happy. This can enable organisations to plan resources for more effectively and where practical take cost out of call centres and other functions.

Another hugely impressive presentation came from Brian Lay the CEO of Alpha Rank who created social graphs to help businesses understand the key influencers of their customers. This involves the data that is considered to be the most valuable element of social media services like Facebook Twitter and LinkedIn. Apparently until 2012 Facebook disclosed this information with third parties however it has subsequently been decided to be too valuable to share.

Understanding these social graphics can enable businesses to predict when customers might be likely to leave and take preventative action. The same techniques have been used highly successfully in the mobile phone industry with T-Mobile reducing its attrition rates by 50% in a single quarter. In financial services the company will take 2 to 3 years of banking data, analyse it and provide maps back to their clients’ so they can understand who the crucial influencers are who drives behaviour amongst other customers.

The service focuses on off-line word of mouth recommendations which account for 93% of such conversations. By definition being off-line these are the hardest to measure but Ley identifies them as the most valuable form of endorsement. The service does not yet currently use social media data but this is seen as a natural further development.

One company already making very creative use of social media data Neener Analytics primarily focused on the lending industry and improving their underwriting decisions the service can also be used to improve insurance risk decisions. In each instance services are intended to compliment rather than replace processes.

The service is currently built around the data that can be extracted by consumers’ giving permission to access their Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter accounts and can be particularly valuable when trying to assess people who have a poor credit score simply because they have not previously used much credit. One major attraction is that the customer only has to give a single click consent to access this data and the service conducts the rest of the analysis.

While the company are prioritising credit and insurance risk talking to founder and CEO Jeff LoCastro I couldn’t help but be drawn to question how much such a service could be used to conduct attitude to risk assessments. This might be particularly useful in areas such as auto enrolment where savers will have had little experience or risk profiling and may find a single click approach more appealing as a process. Current risk profiling techniques do leave much to be desired and are an area where an improved customer experience might be very valuable. Finally I want to give a mention to Horizn who really impressed me with their gamification of training services that can be used with either internal staff or customers to encourage them to learn how to get the best out of new technology services. The platform provides training content with badges and reward points offered to users’ who complete brief online courses on how to use digital services.

Failure of staff to engage with and embrace technology training is one of the primary reasons that projects fail to deliver their intended return on investment. Providing reward through this platform could easily become a self funding proposition by increasing the successful adoption of technology. Although initially designed for internal staff one major bank has recently made the service available to 16 million of its customers.

I can immediately think of several ways in which this could be used within the life and pensions industry to help staff make more use of technology provided but also to provide valuable additional support to customers.

Notably, and I would say very deservedly, both Hedgeable AI and Alpha Rank won prestigious "best in show" awards.

Arguably the biggest story from this Finovate event are the changes being made to their future shows. From the September show in New York Finovate is now a four-day event with the initial two days of seventy plus seven minute demos supplemented by two days for detailed meetings and analysis. In addition elements of the shows will now be streamed so that it will be possible to focus on specific areas of interest. Both of these are really worthwhile changes. Having personally attended some 14 Finovate shows around the world I have always found them time well spent but these additional changes will make them even more valuable.

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