Sun Life’s ‘Ella’ will serve as digital coach on Google Home, mobile, web

It seems that every tech brand is launching its own smart digital assistant these days, but now Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada is jumping on the trend with the announcement of “Ella.”

At the opening of its new Toronto-based global headquarters on Sept. 13, Toronto Mayor John Tory, Ontario Minister of Finance Charles Sousa, and Liberal MP Adam Vaughn gathered around a Google Home unit and watched a demo with Ella. “OK Google, Talk to Ella,” a Sun Life developer calls out. Then, “Was my massage claim processed?”

Google Home responded that the last claim made for a massage was done on July 15, for $50. Then it asked if the user wanted to rate the masseuse.

Built on Sun Life’s Digital Benefits Assistant, Ella will at first answer questions about account holders’ benefits and pension plans. From there, it will increase its interaction to answer more questions about health care, and connect customers with additional resources and information. Sun Life says the goal is for this digital coach to get to know its customers as individuals, and with the power of artificial intelligence services applied to its own proprietary data set, provide tailored responses.

“Ella is just a baby now, but she’s going to be our digital coach for platforms like mobile, web, Alexa, and Google Home,” says Alice Thomas, chief digital technology officer at Sun Life. “These interfaces need a human personality. Apple’s got Siri as its human interface, and we’ve got Ella.”

Sun Life’s digital team started exploring voice-based interactions about a year ago with Amazon’s Alexa, she says. We learned a lot about the interface, but ultimately decided to focus on Google Home first, given it was available in the Canadian market since its June launch.

“I see it as pervasive,” she says. “It’s convenient, that device when you wake up in the morning that’s going to do all sorts of services for you. If we put the most appropriate service that our clients find useful, that’ be a great win.”

Anticipated for a Fall launch, Ella will launch sometime before Christmas, says Mark Saunders, CIO of Sun Life. The digital team is using an agile methodology to build Ella up to be ready for general release.

Saunders expects that Canadian banks will be offering voice-first interactions for customers as well, and it will become normal to manage money using an AI-powered assistant. He reiterates that the early goals for Ella will be to help track benefits spending accounts and then to transfer funds between mutual accounts.

But eventually, it will be an opportunity to apply data insights in a way that could enable new self-service opportunities.

“Maybe there’s a big life event, where that person just got married or had a baby,” he says. “We have to be mindful of not being too pushy, but we want to provide clients with useful information.”


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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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