HSBC’s chat channels make it easy for digital banking customers to get instant answers to queries – and their popularity is booming. Automated chatbots are helping meet this rising demand. Nathan Pearson, Global Head of Conversational Banking for Wealth and Personal Banking, and Janice Ku, Director, Digital and Data, Securities Services, explain more.

How is HSBC using chat channels to support customers?

Nathan Pearson: We’ve seen an explosion in the use of instant messaging in markets around the world. Many customers are making fewer phone calls, and switching to instant messaging apps to keep in touch with friends and family. So we're providing services to enable retail customers to get support from their bank through those same kind of channels.

Janice Ku: Corporate clients also really appreciate the convenience of chat rooms on an instant messaging platform. It makes it simple for them to get in touch to check things, ask questions and exchange information even when they’re visiting clients or out having a coffee, and while working from home.

Talking about conversational banking (duration 1:39) HSBC’s Nathan Pearson explains how the bank’s chat channels work

What role do chatbots play in dealing with enquiries?

NP: We use chatbots to automate some simple enquiries such as how to pay credit card bills, or guidance on setting up mobile banking. From a customer perspective, you're getting an instant response. You're not having to wait in a queue for a front-line colleague to become available.

JK: It’s a much better use of resources for the bank, too. There are many simple queries from our clients that can be time-consuming for colleagues to manually retrieve the information – for instance, on the status of a trade. Instead, clients can self-service and our bots supply the latest information retrieved directly from our systems, which is very useful when trade processing is so dynamic and things change so quickly. For other general queries, our client management team are also present in the chat rooms and provide the human touch.

We held 10 million chat conversations a year in 2019. We expect to handle 10 million a month by 2024

NP: Chatbots clearly can't answer all questions, and we always will have human agents available. But by automating the simple basic enquiries, it leaves our skilled front-line colleagues to provide those answers where it really needs more experience or that human empathy.

How do customers feel about interacting with HSBC via chat?

NP: We did some user research that found out that customers sometimes prefer the channel for difficult conversations, like talking about financial problems or even bereavement. “I need to change my joint account because my partner has passed away,” for example. You don't have to have that phone call where your voice is wavering, it’s actually much easier to sit down and type. And our front-line teams are trained to provide that empathetic support, just as our teams in branch or on the telephone would.

We’ve also identified the importance of the tone of voice. Customer testing found that people just want their enquiry to be solved efficiently and effectively. The customer feedback was, “We don't need our bank to be all cool and trendy, or too wacky and quirky, we just want to get the task completed and get on with our day.”

What do customers like about chatbots?

JK: It’s so much simpler and easier. In the past, even basic queries could involve lots of emails with copy lists of many people, so everyone’s mailboxes are flooded. Now in the chat rooms, a lot of these queries can be automated and the chatbot can act on the request, extract the information from our platforms and share it back to the client in real time. For one client, for example, emails on simple trade statuses have been reduced by 30 per cent a month.

Who designs HSBC’s chatbots?

NP: We decided our contact centre agents – who staff our phone lines and respond on our chat channels – should play a key role in building our retail chatbots. They've dealt with hundreds, thousands of customers over the years. They’re able to design the right responses with the right tone of voice so our bots can help customers as effectively as possible.

We launched our first ‘Conversational Studio’ in Bangalore, India, earlier this year, where contact centre agents have been retrained as Conversational Designers and Chatbot Managers. They’re designing and delivering chatbots at pace and scale for use in multiple markets, and helping us improve and evolve the customer experience offered by our bots.

JK: We work closely with our institutional clients and co-design the way we would like our chatbots to interact. We collect feedback on an ongoing basis from our clients and staff to fine-tune the design.

How do you expect HSBC’s customer chat channels to grow?

JK: We and a number of our corporate clients see enormous further potential for instant messaging in internal and external business communication. We’re working with a group of pilot clients for now, but eventually, we aim to integrate our bots across the range of apps available to all our corporate clients.

NP: On the retail side we’re currently live in 18 markets, and that will grow. We see customer adoption significantly increasing. And we’re looking to open up more channels – so we've started to explore tie-ups with third-party messaging services, for contacting us outside of HSBC websites or apps. We held 10 million chat conversations a year in 2019. We expect to handle 10 million a month by 2024.

How do you expect HSBC’s chatbots to evolve?

NP: At the moment they are mostly dealing with standard or commonly asked questions. Over time they will evolve to provide a more personalised and relevant experience for our customers.

We could build chatbots to respond to every person in an individualised tone of voice, knowing about that customer and their circumstances. Bots could even make proactive suggestions, where customers have opted in for that. So a bot might say to me: “Hey, Nathan, you just had a child – have you thought about how your financial needs are changing as a result?”

JK: On the corporate side we’re combining human experience and intelligence with increasingly sophisticated bots. In a single chat room, we have our client, our client management team and a bot. Even when the enquiry is complex and requires a human response, the bot can act like an assistant to our client management and operations teams by logging and tracking every query. We can then apply artificial intelligence to those tracked conversations to enable the client management team to understand our clients’ behaviour and serve them better.

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