USAA Takes a Deeper Dive into Voice-Based Card Controls

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USAA is a famously fast adopter of new technology, but that also means it must constantly tune up past investments to meet customer demand.

Such is the case for its "direct command" digital assistant, which was previously offered only in the USAA mobile app and has since been expanded to the bank's website. The expansion allows the user's PC to devote its power to interpreting a wider range of spoken or typed commands.

Its more than 120 commands can handle tasks such as activating cards, changing PINs, setting travel notifications, account transfers and reporting lost or stolen cards. The major benefit is executing these consumer requests instantly and without navigation. Natural language and voice are available on mobile, while natural language and voice to text software can be used on the web. 

"USAA is a branchless institution by nature, so everything is digital," said Prianka Advani, assistant vice president of USAA Bank Daily Experiences, who said about 70% of all interactions between USAA and its members happen via the institution's mobile app.

"Banking can be a little behind…you can order an Uber car with a voice command, and we want to get there," Advani said. With the updated digital assistant, typically complex tasks "can be done in about five seconds when you don't want to make a phone call," Advani said.

USAA's focus on a digital assistant that responds to spoken commands puts it in league with the country's biggest technology makers. Amazon recently updated the products that work with its Alexa voice assistant, Google is planning a similar product called Google Home, and Apple is rumored to be planning a similar system based on its Siri assistant.

USAA has been keeping pace with its voice-controlled banking and payment services. It has added features such as voice-enabled mobile check deposit and, more recently, a system that allows users to notify the institution when they are traveling or planning a large purchase.

USAA's consumer base is typically more concerned about budgeting and security than customers of other card issuers are, since USAA's members can be reassigned or deployed with little or no notice, making a typical change of address difficult if not impossible due to spotty internet access, Advani said.  

"Life changes can come rapidly for our members, who can quickly find themselves on a base or a ship with limited availability," Advani said.

USAA also wants to extend voice-executed card management tasks and other financial services. The institution has been experimenting with voice recognition technology for years, dating to a time when the concept was largely unproven. Voice-based technology has been slow to develop for payments, though there has been some recent deployments, including a Berlin-based technology company, N26.

While the institution did not provide details on a timeline for enabling contactless mobile payments via voice commands, USAA is usually eager to adopt any new technology that has the potential to reduce its members' reliance on phone calls or complex Web navigation. The institution current enables voice and natural language commence mobile payments, but the transaction must be complete through the mobile app's visual interface.

"We want to be the pioneers for voice transactions," Advani said. "Voice technology has taken off by storm, and the members are starting to rely on voice enablement to perform certain functions."

While voice recognition technology is advancing, the technology still has challenges to overcome, according to Nicole Sturgill, executive advisor at CEB.

"Siri and Alexa have taught us that virtual assistants are no longer limited to simply providing information," Sturgill said, adding completion of tasks is now possible and USAA is at the forefront of adding that service. "But as we've also learned, these virtual assistants can sometimes misunderstand or do something the user didn't mean to do. Constant testing, learning and refining will be necessary to ensure that virtual assistants make the transition from short-term fad to long-term delivery channel."

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