Insights and Inspiration


Conversational AI

The Rise of AI-Powered Virtual Assistants

Cormac O'Neill | Chief Executive Officer

There is a fundamental shift happening in the world of credit and collections with artificial intelligence and digitisation coming together to change how this industry is communicating with its customers. 

Conversations around finance – especially the lack of it - are never easy. Both for those in debt and for the employees in the contact centre, these conversations are stressful. But with the innovative technologies emerging like conversational messaging, these interactions are being made easier. 

Winners in a dynamically mobile world 

We are moving from a world that is fixed to a world that is dynamically mobile and it has a direct impact on everything that we do in credit and collections. The winners are the ones that will embrace this shift from being fixed to being dynamically mobile, whereas for those who don’t, the bad news is that they will be left behind. 

And now for the good news. There are plenty of tools available to help with this and AI digital assistants are one of them. Looking ahead, in credit and collections, we’re going to end up in a position where everybody will have a personal AI Digital Financial Assistant. 

But first let’s look at where we have come from. 

The digital and AI landscape five years ago 

As recently as five years ago, contact centres used fixed-line engagement. You would traditionally find a central, fixed location with fixed desks, fixed lines and hundreds of agents all working in one space. 

Where were AI and Machine Learning five years ago? 

At that time, there was a lot of hype around AI and Machine Learning. Two stand-out examples of forays into AI were Microsoft’s Tay chatbot and Amazon’s recruitment AI algorithm. 

In March 2016, Microsoft launched its AI bot, Tay, on Twitter. Tay was designed to learn by interacting with people on Twitter, but within an alarmingly short 16 hours, the company took it down as Tay had learned to be racist and it was posting offensive Tweets. It was a PR disaster! 

This was followed by the scrapping of Amazon’s AI recruitment tool in 2018 which turned out to be gender-biased in favour of men, particularly middle-aged white men.  

Digitalisation five years ago 

Everyone was talking about digitalisation, but nobody could pin down exactly what that meant. At the very least, you were expected to have a website, an online form, and a mobile app.  

In terms of money, cash was still a common way to pay for things, which is a very physical, fixed form of payment. With the rise of digital transformation, money has now also been digitalised.  

Then came Covid-19 

Without a doubt, Covid changed the way the world operates, and we can’t get around the impact it had in our lives. It effected change at a speed we’ve never seen before.  

This sudden disruption had a significant impact on contact centres. Busy offices switched to being empty halls overnight. From one day to the next, all employees shifted to work from home. So, the fixed location flipped to a dynamically mobile one.  

This change was a huge headache for contact centres who were used to working with a lot of physical infrastructure, like phones systems, etc. The problem was, “How do we talk to our customers without all our fixed systems?” 

But that wasn’t the only problem. There was a double whammy as the level of contact centre enquiries shot through the roof since Covid tipped people who previously never knew debt into financial trouble. Many people lost their income and contact centres were overrun with customer calls from people who couldn’t pay what they owed.  

The agents simply couldn’t cope with the increased volume. 

The Rise of the Chatbot 

For every problem there is always a superhero, and in this case, the superhero is the AI chatbot. 

The big drawcard of chatbots is that they can deal with queries a scale. They also excel at black and white queries that are straightforward but time consuming for a live agent. Many queries in finance are simple queries, like “When’s my next payment?”, “How much do I owe?” and “What is my account balance?” 

COVID gave chatbots their mojo when it comes to customer engagement.  

Covid-19 gave rise to mass chatbot adoption 

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, chatbots have been increasingly deployed by various organisations to respond to customer queries and other related information. For example, the global chatbot market was valued at USD 3.78 billion in 2021 and is projected to register a CAGR of 30.29% over the forecast period 2022 - 2027. (ReportLinker) 

How AI chatbots work

Chatbots use conversational AI, Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning to have live, empathetic two-way conversations with customers. For more on Why Chatbots and Automation Work for Debt Collection 

AI Chatbots

Example of successful conversational AI - Salud Digna 

Salud Digna is a non-profit organization which provides affordable health services across Mexico. During the Covid-19 crisis, their contact centres were overwhelmed trying to help millions of people get access to lab services. To cope, they launched a conversational AI chatbot on their WhatsApp channel with amazing results. 

Not only were the number of calls reduced by 50%, but customers were helped faster and felt more supported.  

“The digital revolution has catalysed increases in the access and use of financial services across the world, transforming ways in which people make and receive payments, borrow, and save.” World Bank Group President David Malpass 

Closer to home, Webio clients went from automating 30% of customer interactions to over 70%, pre and post Covid. 

The digital advantage 

Those companies that had embraced digitalisation, who already had a working strategy, were the winners during Covid. 

You couldn’t go into a shop with your cash, and you couldn’t go into a bank, so Covid circumstances gave big wins to online retailers, like Amazon, and challenger banks like Revolut and N26. These banks that were bubbling under the surface pre-Covid suddenly exploded onto the scene. 

There was also an upswing in buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) companies, like Klarna, where you can pay for your goods in instalments. This is easy and free, as long as you don’t miss a payment! 

The Future 

Cash, customer communications and the way we work and operate have all gone digital and dynamically mobile. So, what is their impact on us as we go into the future? 

Machine Learning and Multiple Digital Comms Channels and Digital Finance will come together to produce an artificially intelligent Digital Financial Assistant 

AI digital assistants

In the future, every customer will have their own personal AI Digital Financial Assistant (DFA). The customer’s AI DFA will communicate with the enterprise’s AI assistant, and they will mediate an agreement with each other. 

The AI assistant will be able to act on an organisation’s behalf and you, the customer, will have your own AI-driven DFA, in your pocket, which will be tasked to manage your personal finances. Your personal DFA will be able to communicate its intelligent financial decisions to the enterprise, which will in turn make decisions on the back of that. 

AI chatbots

Open banking and no missed payments 

There will be no missed payments with the AI tools talking to each other. For example, if you owe £200 but only have £180 in your account, the payment will fail, and it will be tagged as a missed payment. If there are two missed payments in a row, the account will impair that loan as a bad debt provision.  

On the other hand, if the DFA negotiates a payment of £140, then the payment is not a failed payment, but a partial payment, and the balance can be collected at a later stage. 

AI can proactively predict the customer’s ability to pay and can proactively reach out to them (i.e., their personal AI DFA) and negotiate a deal. And therefore, you’ll never have the costs associated with missed payments.  

This system will work with the tools we already have today - the AI, the Machine Learning, the communications technology, and open banking. 

debt collection


Where are you in your AI and digital strategy? 

We ask you to consider where you are in your AI and digital debt collection strategy. Looking at the below graphic, are you up high and to the right? Then you are winning. If you’re low and to the left, you need to think about what you’re doing. 

Digital adoption


The link between mental health and financial difficulties 

There is a direct correlation between financial difficulties and mental health and suicide. 

And such, it is incumbent on all of us in the credit and collections industry, particularly those in innovation and technology, to make this ecosystem better for everybody. We need to be looking at ways to take the stress and strain out of this industry to balance this ecosystem so that it is a level playing field. We need to make this system better for everyone. 

This article is based on a talk that Webio CEO, Cormac O’Neill, gave at the World Credit Congress & Exhibition in Dublin, 2022. 


 Contact us to learn how you can embrace debt collection technology  
and conversational AI to excel at customer engagement. 


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