NatWest: Conversational AI finds its voice during the COVID-19 crisis

By | 4 minute read | December 9, 2020

Thanks to advancements in conversational AI and natural language processing, modern AI-powered voice assistants have introduced a bold new era of lifelike conversational experiences. Offering convenient, personalized and frictionless engagement for the ‘always-on’ customer, and smart tools to augment user agents’ capabilities and reduce workload, nearly every business stands to gain value from conversational AI solutions.

But over the past year more than just promised value is pushing conversational AI technology into the spotlight. With businesses overwhelmed by customer requests during COVID-19, conversational AI has proven a natural choice — especially in financial services and banking — to provide the agility needed to deal with the business impact of the pandemic.

Conversational AI helps accelerate financial services response to COVID-19 

With COVID-19 restrictions impacting regular branch banking and levying huge pressure on telephone channels, many customers lacked options for contacting their banks to access critical services or discuss financial impact due to the pandemic. For example, in Europe, during early COVID-19 lockdown, many banks were inundated by calls in what amounted to an increase of nearly 20-30 times the ordinary customer call volume.

NatWest, a leading UK bank, had an answer. Their highly innovative Artificial Intelligence team led by Ankit Chhajer proactively understood the changing customer demand due to impact of COVID-19. They quickly used the power of their virtual assistant Cora, built with IBM Watson Assistant, and conversational AI to transform customer experience and provide much–needed support for human agents.

Ankit Chhajer, Artificial Intelligence Lead, NatWest

Ankit Chhajer is the Artificial Intelligence Lead at NatWest. Over his award-winning career, he has championed conversational AI and voice assistance as the future of banking. At NatWest, he is busy building a future AI ecosystem with a “family of virtual assistants,” including Cora, the centerpiece to NatWest’s digital transformation. NatWest has committed to elevating Cora as the bank’s leading point of contact for all customers in all channels by 2025.

In a recent discussion, Ankit Chhajer and Jean-Philippe Desbiolles, IBM Global VP of Data, Cognitive and AI, discussed how conversational AI has become a digital superhero for the COVID-19 crisis, accelerating the use of virtual assistants to help solve pain points and improve the customer experience in banking.

Watch the discussion replay or keep reading for highlights from that conversation

The heroics of conversational AI during a pandemic

Well before COVID-19 disrupted everyday life and the global economy, discussions around conversational AI were already getting louder in banking and financial services.

“Customer expectations have skyrocketed in banking because of the great services provided by tech giants and FinTechs,” says Chhajer. “Customers want to bank at the time of their choice, anywhere, with instant communication and instant assurance for their finances especially due to impact of COVID-19.”

Chhajer says we are witnessing the “death of the one-way SMS” and a move toward more sophisticated, two-way communication in banks and other industries.

Messaging and conversational AI have become second nature for customers who need instant answers and access to banking services. For Chhajer, virtual assistants working in parallel with human efforts can help meet this demand. “Conversational AI has arrived as a superhero in this COVID-19 crisis to solve customer pain points,” he says.

Jean-Philippe Desbiolles also recognizes that the state of client experience is undergoing a deep transformation in which data and AI capabilities are leveraged in greater magnitude. “It’s all about UX (User Experience) and UI (User Interface) redesign. We need to embrace the end-to-end transformation from client channels to CRM platform; it’s the only way to really get the benefits. Data enrichment, new client journeys, intelligent workflows and overall reinvented relationship model need to be reviewed,” he says.

In turn, Chhajer identifies a trend in how the pandemic’s impact on customer demands has accelerated this business transformation. “A crisis forces you to focus on what truly matters and collaborate like never before,” says Chhajer. “Banks and financial institutions have no other choice but to adopt conversational AI and expand the use cases to create brilliant customer service through this channel.”

How conversational AI helps financial services emerge stronger 

Agility, speed and scalability are some of the benefits conversational AI offers to banks, helping reduce the time bank employees spend on manual tasks so they can help address more critical customer needs.

For example, to help customers impacted due to COVID-19, NatWest Group managed to train its virtual assistant Cora quickly to provide COVID-19 related support and services to its customers. Customers could simply connect with Cora online or via the NatWest mobile app and get all relevant information related to COVID-19. 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 Cora.

The NatWest AI team was able to build new COVID-19 related journeys and react to the rapid changing needs of customers in hours. They helped soften financial burdens caused by COVID-19. Chhajer reported that Cora shortened customer wait times from hours on the phone to speak to a human, to minutes with the virtual assistant.

In the future, Chhajer envisions conversational AI evolving to also understand the sentiment of the customer conversation and leverage the power of big data to drive next best actions and service recommendations for customers.

“Cora’s brilliant support provided to customers driven by the COVID-19 crisis has given us a peek into the art of possibility and accelerated our plan to make Cora the first point of support for our customers,” says Chhajer. “AI will not become an optional subject for banks, but a fundamental differentiator for why a consumer will choose your bank.”

“The potential is limitless and it will only grow as far as AI leaders are willing to push it.”

For more insights from Ankit Chhajerwatch the discussion replay. Then continue the conversation: Accelerate your journey to AI.