Your Banker Is Always In: Sweden Rolls Out the Robots

  • Sweden’s biggest banks are pioneering new AI technology
  • Chatbots are starting with less complex customer services

SEB AB's former Chief Executive Officer Annika Falkengren showcases the bank's Aida chatbot at the 2017 AGM in Stockholm. (Source: Bloomberg)

Aida is the perfect employee: always courteous, always learning and, as she says, “always at work, 24/7, 365 days a year.”

Aida, of course, is not a person but a virtual customer-service representative that SEB AB, one of Sweden’s biggest banks, is rolling out. The goal is to give the actual humans more time to engage in more complex tasks.

After blazing a trail in online and digital banking, Sweden’s financial industry is now emerging as a pioneer in the use of artificial intelligence. Besides Aida at SEB, there’s Nova, which is a chatbot Nordea Bank AB is introducing at its life and pensions unit in Norway. Swedbank AB is adding to the skills of its virtual assistant, Nina. All three are designed to sound like women, based on research suggesting customers feel more comfortable with female voices.

“There are some frequent, simple tasks that we need to deal with manually today, and in that effort we’re looking into AI to see how we can deploy it, and Aida is one,” Johan Torgeby, the chief executive officer of SEB, said in an interview.

Chatbots have access to vast amounts of individual client data, meaning they can quickly handle straightforward customer requests. That in turn frees up human employees to deal with more complex services, like coming up with the best mortgage plan to suit a specific customer.

“Basically all banks are closing branches,” Mattias Fras, head of Robotics, Strategy and Innovation at Nordea, said in a phone interview. “This is a way to return to full service again.”

Nordea’s chatbot will eventually help customers who want investment advice, who want to cancel lost credit cards or to open savings accounts.

Winning Over Customers

Swedish banks have already seen their customer satisfaction scores drop to a 20-year low after shutting branches and pushing people onto online services.

But AI might be part of the cure. According to a recent study by market researcher GfK, there are wide gaps between what consumers hope to receive from banks in terms of service and financial advice, and what they actually get. AI applications such as chatbots “hold the promise of filling in these service gaps, given the right data and programming,” GfK said.

Swedbank, which already operates its chatbot Nina in Sweden and plans to roll it out to its Baltic markets as well, says one of the benefits to the technology is that it eases users into the new digital age.

AI “can help our customers become more digitized, for example by guiding a client in paying bills on the Internet,” Swedbank spokeswoman Josefine Uppling said.

Petra Stenqvist, a partner at Pond, which looks into innovative business ideas, says it’s unlikely AI will ever be able to think like humans.

It “will never be able to replace subjective assessments,” she said. “But it will be able to contribute to better decision making.” And because of the massive amounts of data that AI can store, “individuals will be able to find out things about themselves that they didn’t even know.”

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