Living with credit, New products

Alexa will give you your credit card balance – if you ask her correctly

Jeff Herman
Alexa, what's my card balance?

Alexa tells you a joke, reads you the news, plays your favorite music … and lets you know your credit card balance.

Capital One, American Express and USAA Labs have rolled out Alexa skills, but what credit card and banking questions can Alexa answer?

“The most common question is, ‘What’s my account balance?’ says Matt Sueoka, vice president of digital partnerships at American Express. “It’s not a big surprise because it’s a typical question that card members might ask on any given day to check in on their card accounts.”

How you ask the question is key
Alexa might not always understand what you’re asking, though. That’s what Kevin Fowler, an organic search specialist here at and a Capital One Quicksilver cardholder, and I, an American Express Blue Cash Everyday cardholder, discovered when we took the card issuers’ Alexa skills for a test drive.

Alexa is “pretty picky about question-wording,” Fowler says. “Equivalent statements aren’t always understood.”

For example, he says, asking the prescribed “What’s the balance on my credit card?’’ is easily answered. But asking “What’s my credit card balance?’’ or “What’s my account balance on my credit card?’’ didn’t often work.

That’s not a fault of the card issuers’ Alexa skills. With any Alexa skill, sticking to the precise wording helps. Clear enunciation and being close to Alexa counts, too.

Asking a question of Alexa is a little like buzzing in with an answer on “Jeopardy.” If you have the right answer but it’s not phrased correctly (starting with “What is…” or “Who is…”), you won’t get the points.

Learning from Alexa
Capital One was first with an Alexa skill, rolling it out at the 2016 SXSW conference. AmEx on Alexa debuted in May, and USAA Labs introduced a pilot Alexa program in August.

In the year and a half since, Capital One has learned a lot from how its customers interact with Alexa and how to increase customer engagement.

“Overall, we want to make Alexa conversations move away from traditional bank-speak and highlight the natural language people use every day to talk about their money,” says Ken Dodelin, vice president of digital product development at Capital One.

“For example, when we developed the ‘How much did I spend?’ feature, it was because that’s how people ask this question in real life – like they are talking to a friend.”

Alexa and artificial intelligence
USAA Labs also is striving for its Alexa skill to interact with USAA members in everyday language. USAA partnered with artificial intelligence firm Clinc to help Alexa respond better to questions from participants in its pilot program.

For example, if a USAA member uses “dough” instead of “money” in asking “How much money do I have in my account?” Alexa understands and can answer.

“We’re separating word recognition from concept recognition,” says Darrius Jones, assistant vice president of USAA Labs. Clinc makes word substitution possible, allowing Alexa to understand a variety of spoken queries. That, he says, creates a “very forgiving” system.


Expanding Alexa’s skills
Each of the card issuers is adding and broadening its Alexa skills and expanding Alexa’s ability to understand what a customer is asking.

“For example, a user might say, ‘What are my AmEx offers?’ or ‘What offers are available?’ and we would map those phrases to our AmEx Offers functionality,” Sueoka says. “We are adding more phrases and functionality over time to improve the AmEx skill’s performance.”

One thing USAA Labs’ Alexa skill won’t do – at least for now – is payments. Jones says there are just too many security concerns.

Though AmEx on Alexa would let me pay my bill, it was something I just couldn’t bring myself to test. I’ve never used Venmo, ChasePay or Zelle, though, so that’s my fault, not AmEx’s or Alexa’s.

Alexa and others moving into our homes, lives
Alexa was the first mass-produced digital personal assistant for the home, and Digitimes projects Amazon will ship 10 million of the devices in 2017.

Alexa isn’t alone – there’s also Google Home, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Samsung’s Bixby, and a host of Chinese assistants. Ovum’s Digital Assistant and Voice AI-Capable Device Forecast: 2016-2021, which includes AI-capable smartphones, tablets, smart home, wearables and  TV devices, projects the number of virtual digital assistants will overtake the world’s population by 2021.

From Alexa to Eno
What’s next for Capital One and Alexa? “Our Capital One skill will continue to go where Alexa goes,” Dodelin says.

At the end of June 2017, Capital One was among a handful of companies Amazon selected to build a skill on its newest Alexa-enabled product, the Amazon Echo Show, he says.

The aim is to let “customers bank in ways most convenient to them, whenever and wherever,” Dodelin says. “We learned a lot about the natural language interface and applied it to our development of Eno.”

Eno, a chatbot that loves emojis, launched in March 2017 on the first day of SXSW and is currently in an invite-only pilot.

Alexa, meet Eno. Eno, meet Alexa. On their first date, I hope they won’t charge the meal to Fowler’s Capital One credit card. 🙂

Alexa’s impact on home life
Alexa was delivered to my home just after Amazon Prime Day, and she has changed so much. From the jokes and news headlines in the morning to releasing “the box of cats” to tease the dog, Alexa has become part of our lives. Being able to ask my card balance and due date saves logging in online, keystrokes and time. Maybe one day, I’ll even trust Alexa to pay my AmEx bill.

At the end of the day, quite literally, Alexa is like another person. “Alexa, play wind chimes.” No need now to buy that white noise sound machine for a birthday present. And, of course, one says, “Alexa, good night.”

The reply? “Good night. Sleep tight.”

See related: Voice assistants begin to answer credit questions, Chatbots will help you with your cards, banking

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