WebRTC: a revolution is coming in Customer Service

Providing good customer support is one of the most vexing problems with branch-less banking. The industry currently offers multiple but largely disconnected support channels:

  • Email: not a real-time interaction, with response times varying from a few hours to a few days. It is a good option for customers used to typing text for their jobs, but it can be uncomfortable for people who rarely get to type on a computer keyboard. The quality of the service is a combination of the response speed and the qualification and communication skills of the customer support agent answering the email inquiry.
  • Chat: this is like the real-time version of email. Customers type a question or describe an issue in a dialog box, and a customer service agent answers immediately by typing a response or asking for further clarification. The quality is defined entirely by the technical qualification and communication skills of the agent.

Bad Customer Service

  • Interactive Voice Response (“IVR“) server: an automated real-time service accessed by calling a toll-free number and by punching the numeric keys 0-9 on the keypad of the phone. The quality is a function how well the “call flow” was designed: easy-to-understand navigation, obvious options for rescuing the customer when lost somewhere down the navigation tree, and short voice prompts are all indispensable. IVRs are also unable to deal with complex customer input like serial numbers, dates of purchase or shipping addresses.
  • Call Center manned by customer support agents: this is often the most comfortable interaction for customers needing help, because it is a direct person-to-person interaction with no technology intermediary. Like with chat, the quality is defined entirely by the technical qualification and communication skills of the agent (and the waiting time during peak hours).

Because these systems operate in parallel with each other, frustration can mount rapidly when customers are asked to start over from scratch and repeat the description of their problem when switching from one channel to another.

Now imagine the following interaction:

Alice realizes that her debit card has just expired, but she has not received a new card by mail (or she can’t find that replacement card in the mail anyways). She no longer has a fixed phone line at home, so she calls the toll-free number at the back of her card from her mobile phone. As expected, ordering a missing replacement card after the expiration of the current one is not an option in the IVR call flow.
Fortunately though, the IVR server has detected that she is calling from a cellphone and offers the option to explain “other” problems by escalating to a chat session with an agent: “we can send you a text message with a link to chat with one of our customer support representatives – Press ‘1’ to receive the text message with the chat link and terminate this call”. Alice presses ‘1’ and receives a text message 30 seconds later.
She clicks on the link in the message. This automatically starts her phone browser with a dialog box where she can type her request for a replacement card. The agent responds that Alice needs to provide the last 4 digits of her social security number and zip code for security reasons. Alice is uncomfortable providing this information by typing text in a browser window, so she responds by asking if she can talk to a customer representative instead.
Call Flow with WebRTCThe agent answers by inviting Alice to click on the “Talk to an Agent” button at the bottom of the browser window. Alice finds the button, clicks on it, and answers “Yes” to the popup question that appears on the front of the screen asking her to authorize access to her microphone to enable the call. The customer support representative greets her and asks her to confirm that she is calling to request a replacement card.
As the agent seeks to confirm Alice’s street address, Alice realizes that the bank still has her old address, so she needs to provide her new address to the bank. As she tells the agent that she has moved to a new place 3 months ago, the agent informs Alice that the security policy of the bank requires that she provides a proof of address because the move is less than 6 months ago. Alice starts feeling discouraged by the mounting hassle. The agent tells Alice that she has the option of providing this proof right away by taking a picture of a utility bill with her cellphone now, if she has one handy.
Alice does have her latest power bill from the mail she rummaged through to find her card, so she asks the agent “how do I do this?”. The agent invites Alice to look for the “Send Picture” button on the same browser screen she started the call from. Alice cliks on the button and answers “Yes” to the popup question that appears on the front of the screen asking her to authorize access to the camera on the phone. The browser screen changes temporarily to a frame showing what the camera sees surrounded by buttons to take the picture or cancel.
Alice lays her power bill flat on the table, takes the picture, and clicks the “Use” button that appears at the bottom of the screen as the picture looks OK to her. She tells the agent that she has just taken the picture. The agent asks for a minute of patience on the phone, and then confirms that she has been able to review the picture the bill and store it for future reference. Alice’s new card will be sent by mail tomorrow.


Web RTC diagram
Voice & video communication from within the browser

This scenario if possible thanks to a new upcoming technology called WebRTC or “Web Real Time Communication”. WebRTC is likely to do to voice and video telephony what HTML did to text: deliver the ability to handle voice and picture calls inside the formidable capabilities of the Internet, in a clickable and linkable manner. The distinction between channels of text, chat, voice and video evaporates as everything is handled from within the most ubiquitous of all platforms: the web browser.

From a customer standpoint, WebRTC will provide a rich and smooth interaction with a user-selectable choice of “closeness”, from any PC, tablet or phone, irrespective of the underlying operating system. It will reduce costs for service providers, as a single system will support multiple modes or interaction, and will improve quality and customer trust.

The WebRTC standard is not available yet on all browsers: somewhat tricky technical disagreements still remain between some large players.  Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari still lack native support for the WebRTC ingredients, while Chrome, Mozilla and Opera already support large parts of it. Part of the lag may also find its origins in the politics and vested interests in Skype (Mircosoft) and Siri (Apple). WebRTC can already be leveraged by developers of native mobile applications, so it would be possible for a service provider with mobile development resources to implement Alice’s scenario above from within a banking app.

Regardless of the implementation path, WebRTC is poised to generate vast improvements in mobile and online banking and accelerate the move towards branch-less banking.

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Pursuing Quality Innovation in the Prepaid Card Industry

Compass Advisory Note on Prepaid Quality Innovation

The Center for Financial Services Innovation has just published its Compass Advisory Note about pursuing quality in prepaid cards. It features NetSpend and Banking Up as early adopters of the Compass Guide to Prepaid.

The Compass principles have helped Banking Up prioritize its pipeline of technical and operational developments: we have brought to the front of the line those developments that would have the most immediate impact along the Compass Principles.

We looked at our pipeline of future product development items and identified those that would have an immediate impact on improving consumer trust. At the time, we were:

  • Building a new mobile app,
  • Reconfiguring our live Customer Support service,
  • Trying to optimize our online customer acquisition,
  • and we wanted to improve our online self-help system.

We took each of the above topics and looked at how we could deploy them in the way that was the most consistent with the Compass Principles.
For example, we started by simply including in our mobile app a button that would immediately display all the fees in a box formatted as suggested by the Compass Principles.
We switched vendors for our Customer Identification Process and chose a solution that minimized the need to escalate to faxing or scanning paper documents, because many applicants don’t have easy access to faxes or scanners.

Some of the things we planned to do have proven more challenging than others. For example, we had under-estimated the amount of effort needed to improve the education & guidance intended to help customers understand the product and optimize its use or minimize the fees.
We have planned to create an interactive contextual help system to replace our FAQs and to produce a number of simple “how to” videos. We still have not deployed those items because they require a lot more content production work than we had anticipated.

Overall, our advice to those who want to use CFSI’s Compass Principles in Prepaid would be to consider this first and foremost as a “consumer trust building” initiative.
Ask yourself what changes you can make to your product and operations that will result in consumers trusting you and your service more than they would otherwise. Whatever the size of our organization, this is a simple criteria to apply, and potential detractors inside your organization will have a hard time fighting this because no one can be seen siding against increasing consumer trust.

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Opening of Deposit Accounts is Going Full Mobile

It used to take a bank branch to open deposit accounts for new customers.

Then, in the early-to-mid 2000’s, when the penetration of Internet Connected personal computers reached critical mass, it became possible to open accounts from the comfort of your home (or office).

Today, 149 million Americans have a smartphone (source: ComScore, Nov 2013), and many of those people have disconnected their fixed phone line and trashed their home computer. It is evident that cellphones are going to become the dominant way to open accounts.

This is a major shift in the world of “mobile banking”. Banking apps will no longer be a companion to an account opened at the branch or from a PC: they will be how your open an account in the first place.

Below is a short presentation on Mobile Account Opening that showed at All Payments Expo on March 3 and 4 in Las Vegas:

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Of Bitcoins and Ethical Banking

Cash Room in the Treasury BuildingThe most beautiful meeting room I have ever been to is in the Treasury building near the White House. It is called the Cash Room, because it used to contain actual piles of cash when the Treasury was the bankers’ bank. The general public could also go there to cash government-issued checks, or change gold and silver.


Hacker's CubicleNow compare this with the den of Satoshi Nakamoto, where the first Bitcoins were minted and stored. OK, I made that one up, because Satoshi Nakamoto is a pseudonym: we don’t really know who created this cryptographic currency and its associated transfer protocols. It might actually be a group of developers rather than a single person.

But you get the idea: digital representation of money and mathematical protocols take a lot less space than physical cash and require no brick-and-mortar security.


When combining the exponential benefits of Moore’s law (where every 18 months the same amount of silicon chips can double in power), the multiplying effects of networks (where useful connections increase proportionally to the square of the number of nodes, as first highlighted by Bob Metcalfe’s law), and the algorithmic smarts of 20-somethings out of Stanford University, you get a Google.

While planetary growth has made it difficult for Google to stay true to its core value of “doing no evil”, one has to wonder if a Google-equivalent of banking could not be built with the same mix of computer, Internet and algorithmic wizardry and have a main goal of being an “ethical bank” that does no evil.

After many years of unconscionable risk taking, rate manipulations, customer abuses and self-awarded fat bonuses, banking is in dire need of an ethical offering available to everybody. While there are plenty of well-run, customer-friendly credit unions and community banks, their scale is limited by their own charter to serving a small number of qualifying customers in a restricted geography.

So, is digital banking the foundation for scalable ethical banking? I think digital banking is necessary, but not sufficient.

Back to Bitcoins: the technology was initially deployed with no business rules (and pretty much no business model), resulting in sites like Silk Road using Bitcoins for drug sales, before it was shut down by the Federal Government last week. While the Bitcoin Foundation is putting a brave face on this (see the Washington Post article ) there are countless Bitcoin “exchanges” being run by entrepreneurs without a clue about money laundering risks.

Digital payment processing is not the exclusive domain of new new things like Bitcoin: in fact all large banks and the dominant payment networks (Visa. MasterCard, American Express, Discover) are pretty much 100% digital, even if their protocols and algorithms are far from being as smart Bitcoin. These incumbent banking services have plenty of rules and regulations to protect consumers (and themselves), with more to come from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This does not make them ethical, by any stretch of the imagination.

In his book “Jimmy Stewart is Dead” Professor Laurence Kotlikoff suggest “Limited Purpose Banking” as a cure to what he calls the ongoing financial plague. While large established players would have a hard time limiting themselves as suggested by Kotlikoff or dividing themselves up into the required independent pieces, new initiatives, or “neobanks” can easily just focus on retail or consumer banking.

While I am not expecting neobanking initiatives to use the words “ethical” or “sustainable” explicitly in their marketing pitches, nor include “do no evil” in their mission statement, the opportunity is there for entrepreneurs to achieve ethical banking by combining:

  • The digital efficiency and scalability of computers and networks.
  • The rules and regulations already in place for consumer protection
  • Their own additional rules of conduct, mission statement and operational procedures

Two initiatives came to my attention last week, which looks like they are being built in exactly that way: the Occupy Cooperative, born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which plans to launch a prepaid card, and Sustain Green, which plans to launch credit, payroll and prepaid cards with rewards in the form of carbon offsets.

I suppose they will also keep an eye on Bitcoins and other new ways to make electronic payments more efficient in the future, like the recently announced protocol by Visa, MasterCard and American Express to make online and mobile payments simpler and safer.

These are exciting times.

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The Future is Mobile for Everyone

As a veteran of the wireless phone industry, I get irritated when new business partners start a discussion with a lecture on how fast the mobile world is expanding. The cellphone is the fastest-growing consumer device ever… African villagers are getting paid at the open air market through their cell phones… I know, I know.

But I have to admit being inconsistent: I get even more annoyed when other people presume that a large part of the potential customers for Plastyc’s prepaid-based banking services have either no cellphone or no data plan on it.

This week, I stumbled on a forecast by telecom giant Ericsson in the Special Report section of The Economist which illustrates how amazing the expansion of the mobile world really is, with stunning graphics.

Here it is:

Mobile forecasts from 2011
(from the Oct 27th 2012 issue of The Economist)

While I have argued in a prior post that mobile wallets that allow people to pay at the point of sale are still not ready for widespread use by the general public, there is no doubt that the banking industry had better accelerate its deployment of mobile access for both its customers and employees. This includes:

  • tablet and mobile applications for customers to access their accounts (or open new ones)
  • tablet applications for branch employees to deliver customer support
  • tablet and mobile replacement of counter-top point-of-sale terminals
  • pushing brick-and-mortar check cashers out of business by offering mobile deposit capture of paper checks from mobile phones
  • replacing the store racks full of plastic cards dangling from j-hooks with instantly-issued stored-value applications loaded into cellphones

I am going to buy some reprints of The Economist article to distribute around at some of my next business meetings.

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