Facebook Messenger chatbots prepare financial services companies for the future

May 9, 2017 | by Will Hernandez

David Marcus, vice president of messaging products at Facebook, introduced Messenger Platform 2.0 last month in California.

Consumers these days want to connect with their preferred brands at a moment's notice. This, in turn, has forced companies to dabble in areas that didn't exist three to five years ago.

Today's latest trend is the chatbot, specifically within Facebook's wildly popular (1.2 billion monthly users worldwide) Messenger platform. The social media company last month announced Messenger Platform 2.0, "a new suite of tools that gives [software developers] the ability to build richer experience, get discovered, and extend the conversational, visual and social capabilities of bots."

Financial services companies and retailers are poised to take advantage of Messenger's enhancements to connect with their customers at any time. MasterCard, MoneyGram and Western Union individually announced their entry onto the platform at the Facebook Developer Conference last month in California.

For MasterCard and Western Union, the decision to enter the chatbot domain is about keeping pace with consumers' preferences while keeping an eye on what the future might bring with emerging technology.

Masterpass and retailers

MasterCard's Messenger presence is somewhat behind the scenes, as its digital wallet Masterpass is now a checkout option on chatbots for FreshDirect, Subway and The Cheesecake Factory.

In fact, MasterCard Labs even developed the chatbot for The Cheesecake Factory.

"We went out to the merchant and we wanted to show them that this was the next generation of engagement for the consumer, so we're driving innovation to the merchant," Kiki Del Valle, senior vice president of digital payments and labs at MasterCard, told Mobile Payments Today in a recent interview.

To be clear, consumers interact with a chatbot that features merchant branding. MasterCard comes into play when it's time to make a payment, naturally.

Some key differences exist between the chatbots for each brand. Del Valle specifically discussed The Cheesecake Factory and Subway, the latter of which is a more robust experience.

Subway's chatbot uses the same assembly-line concept that a customer encounters when ordering a salad or sandwich in a store.

"It's a very simple process when you transfer that experience into a conversational setting," Del Valle said.

The Cheesecake Factory's chatbot provides a simpler experience because it does not allow for order-ahead-and-pay. Instead, users can interact with the chatbot to find a nearby location or send a digital gift card to someone.

"Digital gifting is something that is a key priority for The Cheesecake Factory, so we focused on those two very simple use cases," Del Valle said.

Money transfers

MoneyGram and Western Union were not the first international money transfer companies to debut on the Messenger platform. That honor belongs to TransferWise by a couple of months.

Still, Western Union's presence on Messenger with a chatbot was inevitable.

"We're now just observing how our customers are interacting with it and making sure this is meeting the needs of the consumers and understanding what else they want," Khalid Fellahi, senior vice president and general manager of Western Union digital, told Mobile Payments Today in a recent interview.

As you would expect, Western Union's Messenger chatbot enables customers to make funds transfers — in this instance, from within the U.S. to more than 200 countries worldwide. Consumers also can check exchange rates at any time.

Western Union's chatbot also enables customers to ask some simple questions such as the status of a transfer or the  location of the closest agent to collect funds.

"We made sure they have access to that information as easily as if they were chatting with a person," Fellahi said.

Customers have that option within the chatbot as well for more complicated issues, he said.

Messenger represents another area where Western Union wants and, quite frankly, needs to be. It and MoneyGram are no longer the two primary options in the market. A Messenger chatbot gives Western Union another option for consumers in addition to transfers made online, through a mobile app or in person.

"We want to be where our customers want to be, where they are comfortable in transferring money," Fellahi said. "For us, the guiding principal is really sort of ubiquity. We have new places where people hang out and we want to make sure we're there."

What's next?

Both MasterCard and Western Union are exploring where consumers might go next, as Messenger acts as a good testing ground for what many in the industry call "conversational" or "voice" commerce.

Fellahi said that Western Union has explored what its services might look like on Amazon Echo, at least with a proof of concept. He also described how consumers might interact with the company on other voice-enabled platforms such as connected cars, and other voice assistants such as Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana.

For example, a customer might be able to do something as simple as check exchanges rate through Echo, or ask its voice assistant, Alexa, to transfer funds to a preferred contact.

"We are ready to take advantage of these trends to make a better experience for our customers," he said.

MasterCard already has done similar things with Masterpass through Samsung's line of smart refrigerators. The company has also helped to integrate Masterpass in different wearables.

"This is where the consumers are taking us — the ability to give the consumer the control by bringing them to all these new devices and the convenience of paying, but allowing the consumers to really get personalization from the device [through artificial intelligence]," Del Valle said.

The ability of companies such as MasterCard and Western Union to do such things and pivot with popular trends shows how those financial services companies have become more like technology providers. Western Union might be the best example of this, specifically in regard to communication methods.

Western Union's business was once based solely on the telegraph. Today, customers can still visit a physical agent to send funds, but they also have the option to complete transactions via computer, tablet, smartphone and now, a Messenger chatbot.

"If you think about Western Union, we're a fintech company that just happens to have a network," Fellahi said. "When we first started, we managed electronic transactions and allowed money to be transferred in minutes around the world, and that can't be done without a very strong technology background."

Photo courtesy of Facebook


Topics: Handsets / Devices, In-App Payments, Money Transfer / P2P, POS, Restaurants, Retail, Trends / Statistics

Companies: Western Union, MasterCard



Will Hernandez
Will Hernandez has 14 years of experience ranging from newspapers to wire services and trade publications. Before becoming Editor of MobilePaymentsToday.com, he spent two years as the content manager for PaymentsJournal.com, a leading payments industry news aggregator and information hub published by Mercator Advisory Group. Will spent four years covering the payments industry as an associate editor for multiple publications in SourceMedia's Payments Group based in Chicago. View Will Hernandez's profile on LinkedIn

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