MasterCard using AI to turn staff into top sellers

MasterCard sales staff will begin using artificial intelligence (AI) systems to advise them on putting together and closing deals with potential clients, the company announced on Thursday.

The U.S. credit and debit card company has teamed up with U.K. start-up Rainbird Technology, which has developed the AI software to be trialed with MasterCard's staff in Britain.

Staff would talk to potential clients about their requirements for a product. They could then consult the AI system, which is software on a desktop that users can type into, and receive an answer about the next steps they should take in the deal.

"We are in pilot which is around helping to capture the expertise of the way MasterCard's loyalty and internal sales function operate," Ben Taylor, chief executive of Rainbird, told CNBC by phone.

"When they are selling a new credit card product to a bank, it's about making good human type decisions about what that product would look like, how that would look, how that fits into MasterCard's strategy and taking that human decision and making that into a system that can be scaled across their team."

Human input

Artificial intelligence is essentially a system that can continue to learn and carry out increasingly complex tasks autonomously. Often these systems are created solely using data. But Rainbird's solution is slightly different. It inputs actual human responses into the AI model as well as data in order to create the software.

Taylor said that Rainbird sat down with subject matter experts at MasterCard who were answering questions. The co-founder described it as "mind mapping" which is then "hooked" into data that MasterCard already has on its products. The idea is that the best sales people have human knowledge which no machine can replicate with just data alone. Rainbird is trying to make its AI system have human thinking capabilities, garnered from real people.

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Yoshikazu Tsuno | AFP | Getty Images

The idea behind it is that instead of a select number of people with the best knowledge trying to train and advise a large number of staff, each member of the sales team will have their own top advisor.

It's unclear to what extent sales staff can rely on the technology without having to consult a real human. Taylor said that it can automate a "large amount" of the process and says that the answers the AI system gives come with probabilities. So if a person asks the software a question, it will reply with how sure it is. From there, the sales staff member can ask a human. But in theory, the more that people use it, the smarter it will become.


Rise of robo-advisors

Currently Rainbird's technology is being trialed with U.K.-based sales staff but could be scaled quickly.

"We want to be able to prove the efficiencies quickly, we haven't laid down a timeline but it will be weeks not months," Taylor told CNBC.

MasterCard's trial marks the latest move by financial firms to adopt the latest technology in order to fend off the challenge from smaller start-ups.

On Thursday, Royal bank of Scotland (RBS) said it was exploring the use of an AI program called Luvo that could handle customer queries, such as replacing PINs or lost debit cards.