Can a robot spice up the retail banking experience? HSBC’s ‘Pepper’ is now on the job at Seattle branch


Pepper the humanoid robot is seen in action at HSBC Bank in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Amanda C. Edwards Photo / @acefotopro)

Bank customers who have already embraced technology as a way of handling their transaction needs could be lured offline and back into a retail branch if one cute robot has anything to do with it. Seattle, don’t pass the Pepper, come in and say hi.

HSBC Bank and SoftBank Robotics America announced Tuesday that Pepper, the engaging, social humanoid robot, will now be working at the branch at 523 Union St. in downtown Seattle.

It’s the third HSBC branch to welcome the helpful bot. Models have already been introduced in New York City and Beverly Hills, Calif., and representatives for the financial institution said Seattle made sense as one of the top two tech markets in the U.S.

“The digital banking experience is transforming as quickly as the smartphone revolution took off,” Jeremy Balkin, head of innovation at HSBC, said in a news release. “Pepper’s rollout is part of a larger vision to transform HSBC’s branch banking experience, we like to call it the ‘Branch of the Future,’ by providing a host of consumer-facing upgrades that will take the franchise in an exciting new direction.”

With an interactive screen embedded in its chest, the short white robot is designed to educate customers on basic product information and the availability of self-service banking options. By asking initial questions, Pepper can help determine a customer’s needs, relay that information to bank staff and save time for everyone involved.

“By creating these revolutionary new types of digitally enhanced retail banking experiences that use data intelligence and leading edge robotics, HSBC is transforming the everyday task of a branch visit into a memorable and extraordinary experience,” Balkin said.

A closer look at Pepper’s interactive screen at HSBC Bank in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Amanda C. Edwards Photo / @acefotopro)

Pepper was previously introduced by SoftBank and the Port of Seattle at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 2017. There, the robot was programmed to help travelers find food and drink establishments at the airport.

AT HSBC in Seattle, customers can expect to see some of these key features:

  • Notify a banker: Pepper will communicate directly with bank staff based on customers’ answers to qualifying questions.
  • Tutorials and instructions: In the drive to keep customers up to date on the latest banking technologies, products and services, Pepper provides information on ATMs, the HSBC Mobile Banking app, self-service options, customer support and more.
  • Products and services: Pepper will be used to drive attention to and awareness of HSBC products and services, including special promotions.
  • Social bot: In a bid to make retail banking fun and enjoyable, HSBC launched a campaign encouraging people to visit the robot and upload photos to their favorite social media channels using the hashtags #MeetPepper and #PoseWithPepper.

There will be no customer data or personal banking information available on Pepper.

“For complex personal transactions, if you walk into a bank branch you want to be in a secure room with the privacy of your own human advisor,” Balkin said Monday night during an event to discuss the Seattle launch. “You are not going to be doing that on a robot or a kiosk for that matter, for security reasons and personal reasons.”

He added that perhaps somewhere down the line, with customer consent, facial recognition could become a tool Pepper uses to unlock personalized features.

(Amanda C. Edwards Photo / @acefotopro)

While there has been previous speculation that Pepper got its name because of an artificial intelligence / Iron Man connection (an assistant to the superhero was named Pepper Potts), Kass Dawson, global head of brand marketing at SoftBank Robotics America, said that wasn’t the case.

“The word pepper is one of the few words that is the same across all languages,” Dawson said. “[SoftBank] chose that word mindfully, trying to be a global solution, because anywhere they go it will be called Pepper and people will be able to say that and understand what it means.”

Dawson called Seattle “a major innovation hub” that is “a natural fit for this unique banking experience.”

By becoming the first financial institution in the U.S. to bring SoftBank’s robot technology to retail banking, HSBC says it saw a significant increase in branch activity last year. ATM transaction volumes and new credit card applications were up and there were more than 14,000 total customer interactions with Pepper, the company reported.

Balkin said HSBC is often asked why not just use a kiosk instead of a robot, but the problem is that kiosks are still a one-way interaction — “there’s no empathy, there’s no excitement, there’s no gamification, there’s no fun.” Pepper provides a two-way social interaction.

“We don’t want people walking past the branch, we want people walking in the branch. And we see that Pepper can drive traffic, drive attention,” Balkin said, noting that interaction with the robot at other branches averages about 56 seconds right now. “For our competitors it’s a glimpse into the future of banking. For our customers, the future is here. This is what banking should be, setting a new standard for customer experience.”

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