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Executive interview: Miles Hillier, NatWest

Retail bank’s digital channel development head talks about building a multi-channel customer experience

At NatWest, the fastest-growing segment for online banking is the over-70s. Miles Hillier, head of digital channel development within the retail team at NatWest, says that among the many challenges the bank and his team of 2,000 engineers face is how to support 17 million customers.

Five years ago, the bank started working with IBM to use its Watson artificial intelligence (AI) natural language processing (NLP) technology to provide help and support for customers. “In the past, you’d go to an FAQ [frequently asked questions] page, but as customers shift to digital, NLP is better for support,” says Hillier. “It’s more human-like.”

As a point of support, NLP enables NatWest’s customers to speak to the bank 24/7. According to Hillier, the system, called Cora, handled 10 million conversations last year. “We are moving from the first level of guidance, such as advice on how to freeze your bank card, to the next generation of virtual assistance,” he says.

The goal is to develop a virtual assistant that would enable NatWest customers to complete a transaction through the chatbot user interface.

During the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, NatWest trained Cora to provide coronavirus-related support and services to its customers. Customers were able to connect with Cora online or via the NatWest mobile app and obtain relevant information related to Covid-19.

According to NatWest, Cora also helped thousands of customers to apply for a payment holiday or deferral on their mortgages, loans and credit cards in a few minutes by just chatting to the assistant.

“We do help and support really well, as we have rich digital service,” says Hillier. His ambition is for NatWest’s digital services to become the first point of contact, rather like the Google search bar.

Whether it is in branch, over the phone or via mobile or internet-based services, Hillier would like to be in a position where NatWest can deliver a personalised experience to its customers.

Building up skills

Looking at how the AI-enabled Cora virtual assistant was developed, Hillier says: “As the market for AI and chatbots increased, we looked at how we would build up an AI team. IBM has huge credibility in AI and its tech holds up very well, but one of the myths of AI is that you plug it in and off it goes…the tech takes care of everything.”

But in his experience, the opposite is true. NatWest needed to build out  a team to run and manage the system. This has involved developing a team of highly skilled engineers, who, says Hillier, can get the best out of the IBM cloud and support tools, continuous integration and deployment and Red Hat OpenShift.

Beyond the IT infrastructure to support AI, Hillier says: “We have conversational analysts who look at the data and determine how to make insights. How many different ways can you say the same thing? What is the query about?” To provide the best possible answer, the conversational analysts need to look at intents, he says. 

Building such a team is not necessarily only about classic science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills and hiring software engineers. For Hillier, a key strength is people who are able to talk to the customer. This means that some of his team have transitioned from a branch of the contact centre, where they previously had daily conversations with customers.

The ability to learn customer intents from NLP via the Cora virtual assistant is an ongoing process, and the mass adoption of new technology makes this even more difficult. For instance, NatWest is looking at how customer intents change when they interact over a touchscreen user interface on a mobile phone and what happens in the voice environment of the call centre.

Hillier says the bank is also considering the role of smart speakers in online banking, the connected home, connected car and how the advent of 5G connectivity and always-on technology will change how customers chat with brands.

“We did a Google Home pilot in 2019,” he says. “Following on from the pilot, we have now introduced features to our own IVR [interactive voice response] service to help on specific queries.”

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NatWest is also working on voice-based biometrics and text-to-speech, where the Cora virtual assistant can be used in the IVR system to pick up and understand the intent of customers calling the contact centre. While the NatWest virtual assistant is effectively a chatbot, the bank is also looking at future developments.

Going forward, Hillier sees a world where virtual humans have the ability to interpret facial experience. In 2017, NatWest began piloting  so-called “digital human” technology from New Zealand-based company Soul Machines. The company’s founder, Mark Sagar, won awards for his ground-breaking facial technology in the films King Kong and Avatar.

Soul Machines’ technology detects human emotion and is able to react verbally as well as physically, through facial expressions. Like humans, it is trained when dealing with new subject matter and can learn from mistakes, so that, over time, the interactions become increasingly accurate.

Asked about the role of online banking in the metaverse, Hillier says that because it is not just Silicon Valley companies developing in the metaverse, “we need to be in places where our customers want us to be”.

And if Christmas purchases are anything to go by, people are buying Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, which suggests they will be visiting the metaverse. “The key question is: what is the reason to go into an alternative reality?” says Hillier. Looking at current virtual reality games, he adds: “The highly immersive games people play around the world end when you put your headset down.”

While online banking in the metaverse is still very much a bit of a novelty, as and when people start making virtual purchases in that environment, banks like NatWest will inevitably need to develop a virtual presence to support them.

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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