Chatbot driving greater operational efficiency at Hong Leong Bank

Leveraging technology for increased efficiency and productivity

Hong Leong Bank Berhad (“HLB”) continues to chart significant digital milestones by introducing a virtual assistant named HALI, to help it improve operations efficiency by 60 percent over the course of the year.

HALI, a first for Malaysia, is powered by Hyperlab which specialises in artificial intelligence (A. I.) powered chat, voice and search products. The chatbot developed for HLB is set to assist two main core support functions – Human Resource and Branch Operations. It will take over in answering staff queries on policies and procedures, a function previously undertaken by staff members from the two divisions.

Within a month after HALI’s launch, 2,249 of HLB’s employees initiated a chat with HALI on HR related enquiries. A total of 34,152 HR related questions were answered. 3,234 BOS related questions were answered in total.  An incredible milestone, these results have shown the chatbot’s ability to provide speedy and convenient access to accurate information.

HALI has done this by learning and then automating thousands of queries asked every month by bank staff and these enquiries are can be made 24/7 through personal digital devices like smartphones and tablets. As a result of the time saved handling repetitive and manual operations like answering emails or handling internal phone inquiries, the time saved is now invested in building relevant training programmes based on the data that HALI collects.  HALI comes on the heels of the introduction of an e-learning mobile application called ‘SmartUp’ which enables the Bank’s employees to access bite-sized learning content via their mobile devices.

To learn more about this, we share an exclusive interview we conducted recently with Fiona Fong, Head of Human Resources at Hong Leong Bank Berhad.

What were some of the challenges that led to the development of HALI?

Fiona:  At HLB, we put a lot of care in supporting all of our employees’ needs and we realise that there is a substantial amount of time spent by both our Human Resource Department (HR) and Branch Operations support teams to attend to our employee enquiries. Typically, in the span of a month, we receive thousands of repetitive questions on matters relating to the latest HR policies and procedures, payroll, leave policy, medical benefits, staff loans and more. We had to allocate multiple personnel at our front desk to manually respond to these questions. It was time-consuming but this can also take a toll on our operational efficiency and affect our employee’s work productivity.

We also discovered that whenever employees searched for a specific HR policy and/or standard operating procedures (SOP)s through our e-knowledge intranet portal, the results could sometimes be a “hit-and-miss” or inaccurate. We realised that with such a vast amount of information stored in one place, not all information available would get transmitted to all employees.

In line with HLB’s vision towards being “Digital at the Core”, we constantly look towards digital technologies and innovation that can improve the Bank’s services not only with our customers but also in terms of how we can improve the way we work (which would include the knowledge sharing and interaction among our employees). So, how do we address our employees’ HR and operational concerns more effectively? We engaged Hyperlab, a leading Conversational Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) company to create a reliable automated platform through the use of artificial intelligence. This is how HALI was born.

What is a day in the life of HALI?

Fiona: HALI is a virtual assistant chatbot made available via our employees’ digital devices. Through HALI, employees at both HQ and branches will no longer be heavily reliant on HR and branch operations support teams as they can now direct their enquiries and chat with HALI through their personal digital devices, such as smartphones and tablets, anytime and at any place.

This gives everyone more time to undertake higher value services for our customers and employees.  A day in the life of HALI is certainly filled with many complex processes being simplified, thanks to the amazing chatbot’s artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities.  This includes speedy and timely response to our users. We worked closely with the developers when engineering HALI to understand and reply to an employee’s query within 500 milliseconds.

Within a month after HALI’s launch, 2,249 of our employees have initiated a chat with HALI on HR related enquiries. And a total of 34,152 HR related questions were answered by the chatbot. In addition, a total of 463 users from our Branch Operations Support (BOS) unit have also benefitted from using HALI. A total of 3,234 BOS related questions were answered in total.

So far, some of the top questions from employees include matters relating to medical benefits, staff loans, leave policy, payroll and more. We’ve achieved an incredible milestone in terms of providing our users speedy and convenient access to accurate information.

Another feature of HALI’s is its ability to learn through experience. This means that HALI is able to analyse the type of questions often raised by employees and use this data to identify and train itself on knowledge or areas it has yet to discover. This is where it is able to fulfil the Bank’s larger purpose of using AI technology – to ultimately provide real-time insights on gaps within employees’ knowledge, giving us a better idea on the development areas we should focus on and more time spent on building relevant training programs based on the data HALI collects.

You mentioned that HALI follows the introduction of another initiative, SmartUp. What were these initiatives related to, in terms of the big picture agenda?

Fiona: Besides looking for ways to simplify complex work processes and ensuring our employees’ needs are addressed, we also have the intention to bridge our employees’ learning gaps. We want our employees to be engaged and empowered to make a difference by being equipped with the right tools and information and share this knowledge with each other. This is where SmartUp comes in.

As the Bank’s first mobile learning app that features bite-size learning content filled with short articles and videos, we have witnessed a continuous increase in employee’s usage of the app since its launch in October 2017. The app includes our internal HLB learning content, created by the Bank’s subject-matter-experts encompassing product knowledge and compliance-related matters but also covers mandatory learning modules targeted for different segments of our employees. For example, the HLB Code of Conduct learning module which is mandatory for all new hires to complete within a month of joining the Bank.

Additionally, the app also offers industry-specific learning content and current topics ranging from FinTech, Disruptors & Innovators, Social Media & Marketing, etc. Within the Bank, SmartUp has been recognised as not only a learning app tool but also a powerful communication tool for employees to engage amongst each other anywhere, at any time.  Since the app is mobile-enabled, all information displayed is available at their fingertips, making the experience seamless and convenient.

AI is being explored in HR – might this be considered across other departments?

Fiona:  Digital has and will continue to be a major consideration in all of the Bank’s initiatives. As technology greatly enhances our existing processes, productivity levels, products and services, we are looking to tap into the potential it has to offer our employees’ learning needs, as evidenced by the high SmartUp adoption rate.

In our path towards digital transformation, we are always on the lookout for new ways and methods to build new capabilities and enhance our end-to-end digital experiences, right down to analytics by leveraging on technology.  With each successful digital rollout, it brings us closer to achieving our “Digital at the Core” vision. I believe the Bank will continue exploring opportunities within the digital sphere to achieve our vision.

Has AI been deployed in other departments already?

Fiona: For now, HALI is the only AI virtual assistant being deployed across the Bank’s departments and it has seen positive support and results from employees throughout the Bank. With the adoption of our SmartUp app, we have witnessed several divisions volunteering to provide and share bite-sized learning on key topics such as Islamic Banking, Shariah content on Riba, Gharar and Maysir (which usually takes a full day classroom session to impart the necessary knowledge). Now our employees have these kinds of information at their fingertips and are able to consume content in just 10 minutes.  Since implementing innovative digital initiatives such as HALI and SmartUp, we’ve created a more engaging and rewarding employee experience for all at HLB.

Do you believe that HALI is addressing the challenges identified?

Fiona: Yes, I believe so. When we adopted this AI technology, we had the aim to improve internal operations efficiency through automating thousands of queries by the Bank’s employees. In just over a month, we have already witnessed a big impact towards the reduction in the number of inbound enquiries to our internal Helpdesk. From what we observed, HALI has allowed Bank staff immediate and accurate responses to their policy questions. We’ve received encouraging and positive feedback from our employees citing “talking to HALI is like talking to a real person”.

Keeping in mind that relatability is key to employee engagement, we’ve made it one of HALI’s most interesting feature, whereby HALI has the ability to be empathetic towards staff enquiries and convey emotions by analysing sentiment.  For example, if a branch operations staff needs to close an account for someone deceased, HALI will convey a sombre expression. In fact, we’ve found that most employees commonly respond to HALI with “Thanks!” after HALI effectively answers a question – very much like chatting with a friend.  We are proud to witness HALI’s success of creating a more engaging employee experience through digitisation, thus further cementing the Bank’s positioning as a digital leader.

Has it created any further challenges along the way?

Fiona: At present, HALI is not able to give personalised responses based on employees’ specific conditions. For example, HALI is not able to answer any questions related to an employee’s potential career progression. This is something that we are currently looking into and we are hoping it will be addressed when HALI is integrated into our Human Resource Management System (HRMS) in its next development phase. Through this integration, HALI will be better equipped to provide personalised responses to specific questions that are narrowed down. For example, the exact number of leave days an employee has remaining for the rest of the year.

What was the communication strategy to get buy-in for this project?

Fiona: Creating awareness of HALI came in a few forms of communications. During pre-launch, email teasers and an article introducing the chatbot were sent to all staff via email and through the Bank’s new mobile learning application platform,  SmartUp.  Awareness levels were further reinforced in our SOP:

  1. The existing HR Helpdesk operators continue to encourage our staff to chat with HALI on HR related queries; and
  2. New joiners are introduced early on to HALI through the Bank’s welcome kit.

If you could go back to the start, are there any particular things you might change about this project?

Fiona: The benefits we’ve seen through HALI have been tremendous and I only wish AI technology was available to us sooner. To stay ahead of the game, we have to advance ourselves according to current technological developments and seize opportunities whenever they arise. Moving forward can only be done by adapting to change.  With real-time messaging, the ability to communicate anytime and anywhere is key to success and even crosses over generational divides. Since HALI is easily accessible via our mobile devices, we have seen staff of all ages have conversations with it like they would with a friend or relative in any other messaging app.

Can you share the cost implications of this project – this would be a primary concern for anyone wanting to get on board.

Fiona: Improvements in work processes and promoting efficiency with digital technology via projects such as HALI and SmartUp have always been a consideration towards achieving HLB’s vision to being ‘Digital at the Core’, proving the benefits of implementation (i.e. ability to improve internal operations efficiency by 60 percent) greatly outweighs its costs.

With HALI, we had to dedicate a large amount of time, energy and critical thinking to develop appropriate responses that will not only address employees’ questions, and also at the same time, is easily understandable across all working levels. Furthermore, we had to set out the various process stages to be put in place in order to enable a fast and smooth flow of replies from HALI.  Nevertheless, as a Bank that strives to stay ahead of our game and continue to be relevant in today’s technologically advanced world, we are positive that digital initiatives such as HALI and SmartUp are an investment worth making which will benefit us both now and in the future.

“Having rejoined the Bank a few months back, naturally I had a lot of HR queries.  It is certainly a welcome change to have ever ready help with my HR onboarding queries. With loads of information to digest for the new role, HALI has been uniquely invaluable in answering my ad-hoc questions without needing to navigate through the traditional information library.  HALI on mobile makes it quick, easy and very convenient for me, and I move on to my next tasks seamlessly and efficiently. I like how HALI is non-intrusive especially on repetitive queries that otherwise would have been funnelled to a HR colleague. For sure it has greatly extended HR’s reach and support level to fellow colleagues meaningfully, and I very much look forward to HALI v2.0 soon that builds on an even more superior staff engagement experience!”

Andrew Jong, Head of Mortgage and Strategy Planning

“An innovative adorable AI, comes in handy in allowing quick access guide just by using simple keywords. Fast & reliable in responding to query asked.”

Tan Eng Eng, Regional Operations Head for Negeri Sembilan and Malacca



“A digitali

zed and innovative tool created for work efficiency and time effectiveness.”

Kenny Koay, Regional Manager for Operations and Customer Service, Southern Region 3



Fiona FongFiona Fong joined Hong Leong Bank Berhad as Head of HR in November 2016.  Having graduated from RMIT Australia majoring in Economics & Finance, she commenced her career with British American Tobacco (BAT) Malaysia via the global HR Management Trainee programme, subsequently taking on roles within human resources in Compensation & Benefits, Performance Management & HR Systems, Learning & Organisational Development, Talent Management and HR Generalist, over the last 20 years. Prior to BAT, Fiona spent 11 years in various senior HR roles with Citibank.




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Headline image of person holding black pen is by Raw Pixel via Pexels.com. All other images courtesy Hong Leong Bank

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