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Tuesday, March 28, 2023
City Week 2023


Cora, the first digital customer assistant to be launched by a bank, is reaching out to customers in new ways – and new forms. JP McKenna, Innovation Lead for Personal Banking at NatWest and RBS, explains how she’s reshaping CX

‘Hey Google! Talk to NatWest Voice’ is how 500 customers are currently interrogating their bank in the first public trial of its kind by a UK high street name.

They’re greeted with a warm response from Cora, who’s friendly, helpful and polite – everything you’d expect from a bank’s customer service agent but with one key difference: she’s not real.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has many forms – from fully functioning, walking, talking humanoid to a computer programme that analyses your facial expressions and tone of voice to choose the most appropriate customer service response.

Cora can’t shake your hand – yet. But she has fast-evolved from a rudimentary text-based chatbot introduced to NatWest and RBS websites in 2017, to one that’s now busy answering half a million questions every month.

Before her trial with Google Assistant via Google Home smart speakers, she enjoyed a brief Beta moment of fame last year as a ‘highly lifelike digital human’ on smartphones, tablets and computer screens. This visual version of Cora could conduct two-way, ‘face-to-face’ conversations with customers, as the bank pushed the boundaries of user interface AI in a limited trial.

And she was pretty convincing – created with help from the studio founded by the man who brought James Cameron’s groundbreaking film Avatar to life and modelled on a member of the studio’s staff. But (unlike Avatar) there’s no news yet of a follow-up. Instead, the experiment produced what the bank describes as ‘useful feedback’, which will inform the future direction of its AI projects.

Writing on the NatWest blog, the head of the RBS Open Experience innovation space (or OX for short, from which Cora, the world’s first digital banking employee, emerged), Kristen Bennie, says Cora has evolved with an enhanced ability to detect emotion.

“Key to this enhancement was that we used human-centred design techniques to create Cora. Her personality is one that is warm, familiar, approachable and friendly, and the feedback from our customers has been positive. We wanted to create an experience that would encourage customers to not only converse with Cora, but to trust Cora. Hundreds of small design decisions collectively have helped to create an all-round experience.”

What the most recent experiment proved, says Bennie, was that: “Customers were open to having a dialogue with her – even those who are not as digitally savvy. We also learned that there are limitations to the technology as it is today, but we understand where it is headed and how it will develop exponentially.”

Untold possibilities

AI at its most basic is unobtrusively delivering better services to customers every day; but, clearly, it also has the potential to radically alter the bank’s relationship with them. Like other AI-based technology, the voice-centred Cora learns as she goes, helping the bank to achieve its big ambition of ‘being effortless every day, and making sure we’re brilliant when it matters’, as JP McKenna, innovation lead for personal banking at NatWest and RBS, puts it.

“AI can really help us by supporting those simple interactions with our customers and giving them that service, when they need it and in an area where they’re happy to receive it, whether it’s through the mobile app or through a chatbot,” he says.

The RBS Group’s approach to innovation is all about focussing on the customer and how new technology can help, shape or exceed customers’ expectations, according to McKenna. And it has already seen huge benefits from the introduction of Cora.

“For our customers, we’re giving them a consistent service – it’s 24/7 – and Cora is always learning to learn and answer those questions in a better way.”

Indeed, McKenna expects AI to improve tailored communication with customers as the technology matures and becomes more pervasive and accepted in our daily digital lives, such as with the current Google Home pilot. But it is important that the banking group gets it right and the development process is ongoing.

“We’ve had to create new roles and new capabilities to make sure that we are using AI in the right way,” says McKenna. “For example, creating conversation analysts, who are reviewing the interactions with customers through AI and refining that all the time, so it feels like the right tone of voice, it feels consistent, and it’s answering questions naturally.”

Wherever it is applied, AI can also increase the capacity of bank staff by redefining what they do, although what Cora is not about is job cuts, stresses McKenna. “Rather, she gives us more capacity, as a bank, to free up our people to help our customers with the more complex challenges they may have, such as saving for their next financial goal. So it’s a huge benefit for the bank, as well.”

Perhaps in the wider context, AI’s most useful service within banking is in improving security and mitigating fraud.

“That’s definitely one of the big benefits,” says McKenna, “to harness large groups of unstructured data and really analyse that and provide insights for us. It’s a huge opportunity for us, as an industry, to look at AI as a way of helping our customers to minimise fraud.

“We have our own internal AI centre of excellence, which is exploring new use cases all the time as the technology becomes more mature. As a bank, we also have innovation assets in Silicon Valley, in Tel Aviv, across the UK and in Ireland, where teams are all looking at how we can bring the best of technology into the bank, to help us improve every aspect of it,” adds McKenna.

“If there’s any new AI technology company with something interesting, we’ll be speaking to them and seeing how we can harness that. Even engaging with them to explore, collaborate and test some of these ideas to see if they’re of value to us as an organisation and for our customers.”

The Scotland-based banking group has recently teamed up with analytics experts from the University of Edinburgh to focus on improving the customer experience. And earlier this year it was announced that NatWest would become the first UK bank to launch a data academy, which aims to train 1,000 staff in its first year on how to best understand and harness data as part of a £1million initiative.

McKenna describes the human-like Cora trials in 2018 as a ‘really interesting experiment’, not least because Cora has obvious benefits for blind and partially sighted customers, who may be unable to fully engage with typical screen content. It also appeared that others who have avoided digital services in the past for whatever reason, were more comfortable interacting with Cora in her human form.

“It kind of points to where this could go in the future, where it’s about not just typing questions or using voice technology, but interacting with a digital human who could, potentially, mirror the behaviour of our customer service agents,” says McKenna.Filmmaker Cameron’s avatars lived in a world called Pandora… for NatWest and RBS it looks like Cora could be opening that box.

This article was published in The Fintech Finance Magazine: Issue #13, Page 82 & 43.
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