Canada-based Manulife Bank is betting on conversational AI to hook customers

The Canadian banking ecosystem, a walled fortress comprised of a handful of major institutions that own most customer relationships, recently added a new digital-only, mobile participant. The new entrant, however, isn’t a young fintech startup; it’s Manulife Bank, a subsidiary of Toronto-based insurance giant Manulife Financial.

In June, Manulife launched a digital-only banking bundle called All-in Banking, which includes a mobile-first experience with the expertise of a digital assistant called MAI to help customers get a better handle on their finances. It also includes checking and savings accounts, travel insurance and an Amazon Prime subscription with at least 10 purchases in the first two months. Customers can use MAI to automate savings, get insights on spending habits and engage in conversations via voice or instant message.

“We want to be the best alternative to the big banks [and] focused on the needs of millennial clients,” a Manulife spokesperson told Bank Innovation. The bank’s digitally-delivered personal finance tool MAI is a means to help customers understand their money in a way that’s not offered by most Canadian institutions, she explained. The goal over time is to help customers set and track financial goals and to add personalized, predictive insights.

Manulife’s digital-only, millennial-focused value proposition joins a small number of digital-only options available to Canadian consumers, including CIBC-owned Simplii Financial; Tangerine, which is owned by Scotiabank; Motusbank, a digital-only offering from Meridian Credit Union; and digital banking startup KOHO.

The technology behind MAI (called KAI) is developed by New York-based conversational AI company Kasisto, whose platform has been used by around a dozen large global institutions, including DBS, Mastercard and TD Bank. Zor Gorelov, CEO of Kasisto, said MAI can serve as a personal banker to customers through the Manulife app, responding to questions about its various products and services and evolving its approach to customers based on what it learns about them.

KAI was customized with the Canadian consumer in mind (it’s bilingual in English and French, it’s accustomed to respond to local expressions) and trained to be an expert on Manulife’s products and services. “KAI can provide advice instantaneously,” said Gorelov. “You can ask ‘How much did I spend at Starbucks last month’, get a better understanding of your finances and make better financial decisions. It helps consumers build better trust with the bank.”

TD Bank is the only other Canadian bank using Kasisto’s technology to power conversational banking. Gorelov emphasized that the objective with MAI is to handle as many interactions as possible digitally, but the tool can hand off discussions to humans for more complex inquiries. “[The AI tool] has a very deep knowledge about financial services, and it can seamlessly hand off conversations to humans as well,” he added.