When Isracard analyzed its call volume in the middle of 2012, the largest credit-card issuer couldn't ignore the results. A third of its queries related to specific transactions. Bottom line: Something had to give that would deflect a percentage of those costly calls.

"We were trying to find a way to digitize my representatives," says Ophir Shtrim, head of consumer call center, who runs a team of about 280 at Bank Hapoalim-owned Isracard.

That desire points to a theme resonating with banks and issuers worldwide: Aiming to inspire customers to use self-service channels in order to save big bucks. Indeed, a typical call to technical support averages $12 or more across all industries, while web self-service averaged $0.10 or less, reported Forrester Research during a webinar held last July.

To troubleshoot the cost while also improving the digital customer experience, the credit-card issuer decided to make use of its data to help customers resolve their questions without a live agent required.

To that end, Isracard connected with Personetics, a VC-backed seller of virtual assistants, and deployed its Digital Banker product.

Isracard, which counts more than three million customers, embedded the tool into its online and mobile applications through a chat-like interface so that customers could get answers to some of their account questions when they wished. The upgrade, which is now available to all online and mobile customers, was rolled out to a limited pool of customers beginning in June 2012.

"Personetics is helping us to predict customers' questions ahead of time," Shtrim says.

To work, customers tap or touch buttons labeled "Assist Me" near their transactions, which then prompts the service to present them with two to three topics they can request more information about, such as: "I need help identifying the transaction." What topics appear depends on the customer's data and shared knowledge from crowd responses, merchant data, among other points.

Take what type of transaction a customer clicks on, for example. What he wants to find out will depend in part on whether the transaction was a one-time purchase versus a recurring bill, for example.

Combining that data with shared knowledge helps the software generate personalized suggestions to offer customers, such as, "Has my bill to Verizon increased?" If Digital Banker gets it wrong, a customer can type in what he actually needs. Meanwhile, the technology integrates into Isracard's CRM system so that agents can quickly access previous conversations, should the customer still require a live agent for assistance.

Though Digital Banker comes with several hundred topics pre-loaded, Isracard chose to first focus on content that lets customers verify transactions and gain insights into their spending patterns like: "How much did I spend on gas this month?"

"Most questions are about specific transactions and merchants," Shtrim says.

Isracard receives about 1,000 inquiries a day through Personetics.

Such self-service customer service functionality is young in the American market. Personetics said it is deploying and piloting its technology with several large banks as well as credit and prepaid issuers in the U.S. to reduce costs, improve customer satisfaction and increase share of wallet.

"The technology is still in its infancy," says David Albertazzi, a senior analyst at Aite Group LLC.
The success of virtual assistance will depend on how strong the decisioning engine is, Albertazzi says. The more data the decisioning engine has, the more accurate the recommendations it can offer.

Nonetheless, Albertazzi says the development points to an evolving trend of banks worldwide: striving to find ways to monetize their data. "We will see more and more banks [trying] to leverage the data they have. This is one great example of how to do that," Albertazzi says. "It's a great example of leveraging the wealth of data. … both in terms of channel use and transactional data that banks have."

Not to mention the technology is designed to enhance customer service and plays off a trend that works well for well-loved brands like Apple.

"It's expanding on the concept of self-service," he says. "Consumers in general are more comfortable in self-service and self-support. It's playing well with current trends."

Looking ahead, Isracard's Shtrim says, "We're looking into several other channels or more places to publish [Digital Banker]."

Including placement outside of the secure banking website to offset costs like customers calling live agents to ascertain their login details. "It's the beginning for us," says Shtrim.

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