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AI in a post-pandemic world

Mon 7 Jun 2021 | Finbarr Toesland

AI-based solutions are vital for enterprises that want to stay competitive and ensure they are better equipped to meet evolving customer demands.

No industries have been left untouched by the disruptive impact of COVID-19. Few companies had prepared for a global pandemic, leaving even major multinational firms with substantial resources on the backfoot. At the same time as contending with a complex and uncertain operating environment, enterprises needed to maintain a level of service their customers expect and continually adapt to shifting consumer needs.

At the onset of the pandemic, companies turned to AI technologies and tools to meet the range of challenges facing everything from business models to people management and supply chain issues. Retailers led the drive to utilise AI in an attempt to turn this crisis into an opportunity as physical shops shuttered and shoppers migrated online.

The rush for protective supplies such as face masks and hand sanitiser caused shortages for these products across the world and resulted in nefarious merchants hiking prices to take advantage of the situation. Online marketplace eBay has used AI to identify prohibited items for years but they ramped up their efforts to reduce price gouging and flag false claims during the pandemic.

Retail Industry

Even before the pandemic, modernising and streamlining supply chains was at the top of the agenda for retail firms. Getting products delivered late or failing to offer the items customers want is unacceptable today, with many shoppers simply choosing to buy from a competitor. The effective use of AI can improve stock allocation in warehouses by quickly determining which location to ship stock from to ensure not just a smooth delivery but also keep storage costs to a minimum.

Slow delivery timeframes can cause customers to abandon their carts and lead to a lost sale. The wealth of data on shopper behaviour can be fed into AI platforms to more accurately predict demand and better allocate stock to fulfil these expected purchasing patterns.

According to a recent KPMG study, 53% of business leaders in the retail industry say COVID-19 has increased their company’s pace of AI adoption, highlighting the massive shifts this sector has undergone in such a short space of time. The same report finds that respondents expect AI will impact how retail firms manage inventory, gain intelligence on customers and make use of chatbots for customer service.

The rise of chatbots

The rise of chatbots in industries like retail and banking is one of the most notable developments over the last decade. In the past, customers would have to call, email or ask a human agent to find answers to even the most basic questions around delivery dates or product information. Chatbots give users a seamless experience that is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with human agents ready to take over if needed.

Finance Industry

Like retail, the finance and banking sectors have accelerated their use of AI over the past year. AI played an important role in keeping these critical sectors afloat during COVID-19 with high street banks like NatWest embracing conversational AI to reach their customers during the crisis. As social distancing measures made accessing physical bank branches difficult for many vulnerable people in society, banks saw an exponential rise in calls from customers of up to 30 times.

NatWest bank turned to their virtual assistant called Cora to take the pressure away from human agents and offer support to users. As customers began to be impacted by COVID-19, NatWest trained Cora to provide services and support around pandemic-related issues. All clients needed to do was access Cora through the NatWest mobile app or online and they are able to quickly apply for a payment holiday on loans and credit cards.

Examples like this showcase the true potential of AI technologies to significantly reduce waiting times for clients, as well as freeing up agents to deal with more complex matters. As we enter the post-pandemic world, banks and other financial institutions can build on these advancements and develop their capabilities to better meet customer needs. NatWest is already working on introducing sentiment analysis to customer conversations to better understand behaviour and personalise recommendations further.

Consultancy McKinsey estimate that the annual value of AI and analytics for global banking could top $1 trillion with close to 60% of financial services sector respondents in McKinsey’s Global AI Survey reporting their companies have incorporated at least one AI capability.

Even the backend banking systems can gain from AI assistance, as paper-based correspondence and applications migrate to the digital realm. Feeding these requests through AI platforms improves processing speed and leaves humans more time to look at cases that need their attention.

The balance between AI and human interaction

Despite its singular power to transform operations, AI isn’t a silver bullet for all challenges a business faces. The sweet spot for most successful use cases of AI is found by balancing the capabilities of this technology with human interaction. Fully replacing the human element or adding AI to services that would be better served by a personal interaction is an example of where overuse can do more harm than good.

For financial institutions, AI can provide deeper insight into assessing the affordability of loan products to customers, which will be especially important as the financial impacts of the pandemic will continue to be felt in a variety of ways over the coming years. Responsible lending rules can be more effectively met through AI as the most affordable level of repayments can be established and these decisions can be standardised.

While many banks with legacy systems will need to overhaul their technological operations before AI can be capitalised on most effectively, the potential of AI is clear. AI technologies can be beneficial across diverse elements of company operations, from identifying fraud, personalising product recommendations, improving customer service and making payments frictionless.

With people increasingly expecting instantaneous service from the companies they buy from, AI is enabling businesses to not just meet these new expectations but to exceed them. No longer a nice-to-have technology, AI-based solutions are vital for enterprises that want to stay competitive and ensure they are better equipped to meet evolving customer demands.

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Finbarr Toesland

Features Writer


chatbots finance post-pandemic retail
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