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The Fintech Magazine Thought Leadership

Exclusive: ‘What’s that you say?’ – Gavin Smith, Santander in “The Fintech Magazine”

Santander UK is using voice biometrics to improve call centre experience. Its Strategic Change Manager Gavin Smith told us how

When lockdown hit the UK, bank customers hit the phone. Call centres became the banks’ front line as millions of people, fearful for their financial future, inundated staff with requests for mortgage and payment holidays. 

Themselves under siege from the pandemic, many bank centres were left with a reduced number of operatives fielding the most challenging calls of their career from makeshift offices in kitchens and bedrooms. The logistical challenge was immense and, notwithstanding the crippling workload, which led, in the early stages of the crisis, to frustration and delays, call centre staff across the industry rose to it magnificently. They were among the unclapped heroes of the hour.

In a crisis, call centres provide what no digital experience ever could: the warmth of human contact – a listening ear, an empathetic response. But not just during a global pandemic. Between 2017 and the depth of the crisis this summer, the number of active telephone banking customers the world over has almost doubled, according to figures released in September by Global Data, indicating that digital channels alone are not enough to resolve customer problems.

The recently published UK Banking Channel Forecast by Business Intelligence, which looks at where banks should focus staff resources and investment over the next five years, believes that trend in demand for telephone services will only continue, the pandemic having demonstrated the continued preference for human assistance. 

If that is the case, bosses who saw contact centre capacity at some banks fall as low as 60 per cent due to fewer UK staff and the closure of centres overseas, will be looking for ways to maximise the time available to each call. And, if the forecasts are correct, then telephone banking demands as much attention as digital when it comes to creating smooth customer experience.

Santander UK began addressing those twin challenges a year ago with the introduction into call centres of VoiceID, a system that leverages Nuance Technologies’ fraud-preventing biometrics. A version of the software had already been successfully deployed by Banco Santander Mexico in response to the government’s more restrictive identity and verification rules for authenticating bank customers there. More often than not, customers forgot the complicated sequence of PIN numbers, leading to 60-65 per cent of 1.4 million customer calls failing at first try. On average, agents then spent 72 seconds on a more in-depth verification process, eating in to both their time and the customer’s. Nuance’s VocalPassword solution cut that to 30 seconds.

“Biometrics enable a seamless experience by allowing our contact centre colleagues to know they are speaking to the correct person so they can focus on providing them with the service they expect from us,” says Gavin Smith, strategic change manager at Santander UK. “We have a fantastic customer journey where we use the telephone number that the customer is calling from to identify them, and their voice to verify them. We use multiple strategies to verify our callers, which means we don’t rely solely on the biometric for identification.

This ensures we can be confident the caller is who they say they are, but it’s a much faster, easier and secure experience than keying in ID numbers and PINs or going through several questions.”

Santander UK customers who have enrolled in VoiceID are asked to verify themselves once by repeating the phrase ‘at Santander, my voice is my password’ when calling in. It’s matched to a stored ‘voiceprint’, created during their enrolment, satisfying the ‘something they are’ element of Secure Customer Authentication, the phone on which they’ve made the call being ‘something they own’.

Although customers can elect to enrol themselves in VoiceID, it can be a challenge making them aware of the service, says Smith.

“Our biggest biometrics and authentication challenge is finding the best way to register our customers quickly and conveniently for voice biometrics. Customers don’t tend to call us specifically to register their voice print. We are determining a way to register them without diverting from the original purpose of their phone call to us, and minimising the amount of time they need to spend on the call,” he says.

Acceptance increasing?

According to research released this summer, customer acceptance to bank use of biometrics is growing. When logging into a bank app, 48 per cent said they would use a fingerprint scan, 25 per cent said they would use a facial image, and 23 per cent would enrol a voiceprint. Only 13 percent said banks should never collect biometric data, according to FICO. In fact, 71 per cent said they would rather provide biometric data to banks for security purposes than employ usernames and passwords. It indicates that, at some level, customers are conscious that they are often the weakest link when it comes to protecting their accounts: more than 20 per cent admitted to having between two and five reused passwords for all financial accounts, while one in 20 have just one for all of them.

Interestingly, more than seven out of 10 said they were happier providing a biometric print to a bank than a government agency. (In Mexico, Banco Santander has infact already used its voice identification technology in partnership with government agencies to speed up state workers’ applications
for pension funds).

The FICO results are in contrast to a survey carried out just a year ago by Paysafe Group, which found that 56 per cent of consumers in North America and Europe had concerns about biometrics and 81 per cent preferred a traditional, password-based approach.

“Our customers in the UK have reacted positively to voice biometrics,” says Smith. “If a customer doesn’t fully understand how it works, we find that investing time in answering their questions in a way they understand, free from technical jargon, really helps them. The number of customers registering for voice biometrics is increasing, which is a good indicator that they are starting to embrace this technology.

“We aim to strike a balance between security and good customer experience,” he adds. “Our approach is to let our customers know that we have a shared responsibility to keep their money safe, and that taking a few seconds to register for VoiceID voice biometrics – by speaking aloud a voice biometrics phrase – is the easiest and most secure way to do this.”

Voice biometrics belongs to the group of biometric technologies that analyses not just physical but also behavioural traits. When Santander customers make an imprint of their voice, the technology is identifying more than 100 behavioural and physical voice characteristics, such as pronunciation, tone and pattern, to create an encrypted record. And, as with all machine learning, it’s getting more knowledgeable by the day. Nuance, for example, claims that its system should allow for someone aged 20 to create a voiceprint and still be using it when they are 80 because the technology will understand the aging process and maintain its integrity.

The voicetech provider is now using deep learning to improve recognition further, using only a small amount of labelled data. Its technology is used widely across industries handling sensitive personal information, including health where it is active in contactless consultations, and financial.

Among the latter, National Bank of Australia (NAB) is aiming to enrol 250,000 customers in its own VoiceID by the end of this year, having launched it in November 2019. The Nuance Gatekeeper technology behind it not only matches the caller against the voice imprint on record, but crosschecks against the device being used, geolocation, and uses liveness detection to ensure the caller is not a recording or a voice synth.

Across all its biometrics products, Nuance claims that with eight billion successful authentications yearly, it has prevented more than $2billion of fraud.

“In future, I believe you will see more of an omnichannel strategy with a range of different biometrics being used across telephone, digital and in branch,” says Santander’s Smith.

“As the technology develops, and customers become more familiar with and trusting of it, banking will become easier and even more accessible for everyone.”


This article was published in The Fintech Magazine: Issue #18, Page 13-14


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