(Bloomberg) -- When it came to Covid-19, Bank of America Corp.’s virtual assistant Erica had a steep learning curve.
The artificial-intelligence program has come to recognize 60,000 coronavirus-related terms as customers seek to manage their cash flow, increase savings and watch their spending during the pandemic. David Tyrie, head of digital banking, sat down with a team in March to teach the app a couple hundred virus-related words and phrases. Since then, use of Erica on Bank of America’s mobile app and website has surged to a record.
“When corona hit, it turbocharged already-accelerating growth,” Tyrie said in an interview. “We expected that we were going to get a whole bunch of new customers. We really didn’t expect the magnitude.”
The pandemic has given a boost to digital banking, which involves less paperwork, greater use of electronic services and fewer in-person meetings. Online services have the potential to bring in new customers, help cut the number of costly branch locations and pare workforces, while making it harder for competitors to poach clients with the allure of better technology.
For Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America, the digital push translated to more than 2 million customers using Erica for the first time since the beginning of March, bringing total active users to greater than 13 million. The virtual assistant handled 15 million requests from clients in April alone, accounting for about 10% of all queries received since its June 2018 introduction.
Customers are now asking Erica most frequently about monthly charges, credit scores and scheduling bill reminders. In April, they were most concerned with payment deferrals, stimulus checks and small-business loans. Erica has been used by 250,000 customers asking for payment delays since mid-March, accounting for a large portion of the 1.6 million deferrals granted by the bank by the end of last month.
Before the pandemic, most queries were basic ones involving such things as account numbers or transaction searches. The change in activity reflects a “dramatic shift” in use of the robot for more complex tasks involving customer finances, a trend the the bank expects to continue once the pandemic subsides, Tyrie said.
“What’s surprising to me,” he said, “was how fast that shift happened.”