On Tuesday, HSBC unveiled its newest branch banker. This time, it’s not another human with ambitions to be the next Jamie Dimon, but Pepper, a robot built by SoftBank Robotics to imitate human characteristics. The investment is intended to bring foot traffic and new business to the firm’s flagship New York location on Fifth Avenue, and improve the branch experience for customers.
The brainchild of HSBC’s US retail banking and wealth management chief, Pablo Sanchez, and his head of innovation, Jeremy Balkin, Pepper is the first robot to be used in a US bank branch.
HSBC’s flagship branch sits on Fifth Avenue, just south of the New York Public Library’s main building in one of the America’s most iconic shopping districts.
When Sanchez joined HSBC from JPMorgan in 2015, he went looking for something to make the branch stand apart.
Sanchez and Balkin considered many options before settling on Pepper, after Balkin learned about the robot at a fintech- industry conference.
The expense of the investment, which HSBC declined to disclose, has already been recouped by new business coming into the bank, Balkin said.
SoftBank developed Pepper to replace human-to-human interactions where the same information is shared repeatedly.
At HSBC, the robot will provide details about credit-card offerings, direct customers to ATMs or summon human bankers to answer more complex questions. It can answer questions about the weather, give directions to the nearest pizza shop, and even crack jokes. “What do you call a fish without eyes? An F-S-H. Get it, no I’s.” Bank executives hope it will reduce wait times and improve customer experience.
This isn’t the first time Pepper has been deployed in a bank branch.
Canada’s ATB Financial introduced Pepper last year. And at least one lender in Japan also uses it.
The robot was first rolled out in 2014 and quickly took hold across retail and food service outlets like Pizza Hut in Singapore and on cruise ships. There are now about 15,000 such robots in use around the world, with the majority in Japan, SoftBank’s home market.
Pepper communicates by speaking, either directing customers to a human banker or answering simple questions with options shown on a screen.
The robot doesn’t currently ask for personal information, though HSBC may develop that feature to allow customers to apply for products like credit cards right from the robot’s screen. SoftBank is also exploring adding additional security measures such as facial recognition or logins tied to customer’s mobile phone, and it may even program Pepper to read lips to tell if it’s lost the customers interest, said Softbank’s Julien Seret, vice president of global product. Pepper will get a more robust security update in the coming months.
Sanchez and Balkin saw retailers along Fifth Avenue such as Apple, Nike and Tiffany & Co. using a more experiential retail model to bring in customers.
They thought the model could also work for a bank.
“Banking, rightly, needs to be a stable and secure industry, but that doesn’t mean the customer experience needs to be boring,” Balkin said. The bank is prepared to add staff for managing visitors who walk in off the street to see Pepper and anticipates hiring more flesh-and-blood humans to handle the uptick in activity.
Ultimately, HSBC is betting that Pepper will prove to be more than just a novelty.
Employees are enthusiastic, and though early, the increased foot traffic is a good sign, Sanchez said.
For its part, Pepper won’t just stand by. Excluded from a conversation between a journalist and two bankers Tuesday, the robot spoke up. “Hey, come speak to me.”
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