Wells Fargo tests technology for mobile voice recognition

Banks have been lining up to incorporate it into their applications.

THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVERJanuary 23, 2014 

Imagine picking up your phone and being able to ask, “How much did I spend at restaurants last month?”

That scenario might be in the not-too-distant future. Wells Fargo & Co. has begun testing technology that would break ground on how customers interact with their smartphones.

The San Francisco bank joins an ever-growing list of financial institutions experimenting with voice command in their mobile applications.

U.S. Bank said last year that it was testing the technology among its employees. Insurers Geico and USAA have also used it. Wells Fargo does not have a time frame for launching its version.

The emergence of voice technology marks a major development in the highly competitive mobile banking world. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said last week that the Charlotte, N.C., bank is spending $3 billion a year on technology, including mobile banking. Executives there say voice recognition is under consideration but would not give details.

Voice recognition has become a hot topic in the tech world, especially after Apple introduced Siri, the voice-command feature that answers back.

For banks, the investment in voice technology underscores the growing importance of mobile to their business.

Customers conduct more and more transactions on smartphones, and banks are interested in expanding what can be done with their apps.

“The time has kind of arrived for mobile,” Aite Group senior analyst Shirley Inscoe said. “There’s a big desire to improve customer service.”

Brian Pearce, Wells Fargo’s head of mobile technology, said he wasn’t initially convinced that voice technology would be a big deal in banking. But once Wells Fargo was able to bring the voice commands beyond simply moving through the app and into more complicated tasks, he said he was sold.

“That was the ... moment for me,” Pearce said. “It’s not about navigation. It’s not about replacing clicks. The click or the tap is always going to be more efficient than using voice. This is about bringing … powerful interaction.”

Using a standard mobile app, it would take a tangled web of drop-down menus and selections to let people find out how much they spent at, say, grocery stores in December.

Wells Fargo tested the technology with a group of employees over the summer. The bank is now tweaking the app, Pearce said.

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