The downtown Toronto branch of Vancouver-based HSBC Bank Canada added a new staff member this week — one that can not only help clients with their banking needs, but also dance, make jokes and pose for selfies as people wait to be served.
That new addition is Pepper, a social humanoid robot designed in partnership with SoftBank Robotics America. While not the first of its kind — seven of the robots are currently working in U.S.-based HSBC branches, something that began in June 2018 — the robot is the first to enter Canada’s retail banking industry.
The robot serves as a physical symbol of HSBC Canada’s recent technological investments, which also include the funding of a global data lab that opened in Toronto this spring and the launches of the bank’s digital-focused Mortgage Centre and Wealth Compass online investing platform in 2018.
Yet, for the bank’s executives, Pepper signifies much more.
One of the goals of Larry Tomei, HSBC Canada’s executive vice president and head of retail banking and wealth management, is to boost the client experience through technology. “Our strategy is built on where our clients want to take [the banking industry],” Tomei said.
As a client experience ambassador, one of Pepper’s main duties is fielding customer questions. Pepper is programmed to explain the various tools available to the bank’s clients, such as TFSAs. There’s a touchscreen on Pepper’s chest for those who’d prefer not to speak with a robot, and Pepper can also call on human employees when needed.
“People want great advice, but they also want that fun aspect,” Tomei said. “We don’t want banking to be what people typically see as very dry. It should be [about building] a relationship, and how you do that — via online, on the phone or in-person — that’s up to the customer.”
Of course, Canada’s Big Six banks and other wealth management firms are also actively investing in technology. Throughout 2019, firms such as Quebec City-based Industrial Alliance Insurance and Financial Services Inc. and Vancouver-based Canaccord Genuity Group Inc. have launched or invested in AI-powered tools and partners.
Also, the Investment Executive 2019 Report Card series has so far shown that, from back-office support to financial planning for clients, firms and institutions must continually bolster their digital offerings for advisors.
But the introduction of Pepper and other digital tools doesn’t signify the end of traditional advice, Tomei said.
The bank is “in the middle of launching 35 new branches, and three have already opened,” he said, adding that its client base and domestic market share are both growing. Tomei adds, “We’ve grown our advisor base [since 2017], in particular on the mass-affluent and high net-worth side.”
According to the bank’s second quarter earnings, released in early August, HSBC Bank Canada’s profit decreased during the quarter by 32% from the same period a year ago. However, there was growth for the bank’s domestic retail banking, wealth management and commercial banking businesses.
Jeremy Balkin, head of innovation at New York-based HSBC Bank USA and a member of the team who helped launched Pepper south of the border, sees the robot as “one piece of a broader sweep of enhancements to retail banking.”
Balkin, an Australian who moved to New York seven years ago, appreciates Pepper’s ability to understand different accents. “It was very frustrating coming to America […] and having to repeat myself multiple times. When I first spoke to this social humanoid robot, she understood me the first go. I was so blown away.”
Based on that experience, he thinks Pepper can help the bank “from a language barrier perspective. Financial services is complex in itself, so there’s an even higher barrier from an exclusion perspective.”
Alongside helping customers on the frontline, Pepper’s ability to collect data could help the bank. While the robot doesn’t collect any personal information due to privacy concerns, it can collect data on customer trends, which both Tomei and Balkin said would be leveraged by HSBC.
Balkin said the bank gets “anonymous aggregate data from Pepper at the end of each week.” The data can show how much clients asked about certain services, where more education is needed and on which topics branch managers can coach their teams.
Throughout the remainder of this year and 2020, HSBC plans to continue growing its robot fleet within North America and up to four more countries, Balkin said.