Digital Banking’s New Frontier: RBC’s SVP Digital Peter Tilton

At the largest bank in Canada, the digital roadmap has pivoted to focus on the industry's white whale—the digitization of advice banking.

There is undeniable change taking place in business. It’s a kind of boisterous, unforgiving digital transformation; taking something that was already progressing quickly in one direction, and applying an external force like COVID-19 to it in a way that morphs fast adopters into market leaders, and laggards into relics of a non-socially-distant past. 

The most affected businesses are those that cater to every category of customer—older, younger, rural, city-dweller, and more. Banks fit this mold, and because of their wide and diverse user base, it’s difficult to create blanket solutions that solve for every use case. But it doesn’t stop them from trying. At RBC, the digital team has undergone one of the biggest pivots the banking industry has ever seen, and so far, it’s working.

Need to Know

  • The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) has seen impressive online growth throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by onboarding 400,000 new digital customers, leading to a 29% overall increase in digital re-engagement.
  • RBC also launched and adapted a new tool that allows clients to securely identify themselves during calls through the use of AI and NFC chip technology. So far, over 3,500 advisors have used the technology.
  • Over the last three quarters, the self-serve transaction rate rose from 87.6% to 94.5%, representing “around four years worth of transformation happening in under a year.”
  • RBC’s digital tool NOMI has delivered 1.2 billion insights, while the Ask NOMI chatbot has answered 2.3 million questions over the last three months.

Reinforcing digital roadmaps

Peter Tilton is the senior vice president of digital for RBC, and it has been his job for the past five years to oversee the bank’s digital transformation across every service. However, as COVID-19 descended upon the world, the bank’s roadmap sharpened, and with it came both quick realizations and gratifying affirmations.

“Holistically looking at our strategy, our overall roadmap was right, and we’re proving it now,” Tilton explains. “COVID-19 has proven that we’re building the right things for our customers—beforehand and right now during this pandemic period—and that’s helped us accelerate our digital roadmap.”

“If we take a look at our North star, the fundamental shift is moving from the digitization of transactional banking to the digitization of advice banking,”

Peter Tilton, senior vice president of digital, RBC

The way Tilton looks at it is that, just like many other businesses, RBC has been studiously working towards digitizing many of its business practices. But as the pandemic shuttered physical locations and pushed customers online, RBC’s suite of products and platforms was not only able to handle the digital load, but also excel in creating a more convenient approach for every type of customer to handle their banking needs.

Royal Bank Plaza in downtown Toronto.

RBC has weathered the initial digital shift with apparent success. With hundreds of thousands of new customers, millions of new digital inquiries into everything from account opening to cash flow planning, and tens of thousands of employees working from home, Tilton and the RBC digital team are now looking at what trends will stick around. 

“If we take a look at our North star and think five years out from now, the fundamental shift is moving from the digitization of transactional banking to the digitization of advice banking,” says Tilton. “That’s the big core shift. I don’t think any of us would have ever thought that the needs of the customer would require such massive acceleration.”

A digital pedal to the metal

With COVID-19 leading to physical bank branches closing, one of the biggest pain points for consumers is not being able to schedule meetings with advisors. Despite the push towards online banking that has happened over the last decade, many people still opt for face-to-face services with advisors, covering everything from mortgages to investing. 

Digitizing this “advice banking” is one of the main priorities for RBC as it looks to keep customers happy and minimize disruption. Very early in 2020 (pre-pandemic), the bank piloted a capability that allowed advisors to verify the identity of clients at a handful of branches by scanning a physical piece of identification such as a driver’s license or passport. 

As the pandemic spread and forced advisors online, RBC’s digital team got to work and leveraged that virtual identity technology to create a new process that brought advice banking into the homes of customers across the country. In mid-March, RBC launched its digital government identity verification solution through its mobile app, using artificial intelligence to check ID against its embedded security features. Clients could scan the NFC chip in their passport to verify their identity, or snap a selfie and scan their driver’s license, letting facial recognition take care of it. 

“We were in the process of building this new onboarding tool for physical branches,” explains Tilton. “We used resources to solve some critical problems for people at home and their fear of not being able to visit a branch. We were able to pivot because of practice.”

With everyone at home—advisors and customers included—RBC leveraged its resources against rebuilding that in-person relationship. It works like so: The customer is sent a secure link, which then links to the mobile app and the ID verification process. It all happens in real-time, and once complete, the client and advisor can chat via video or phone and securely share financial information.

“We built a world-class digital ID platform and deployed it to 3,500 advisors and every customer,” says Tilton. “You can join RBC and open an account remotely, or do all of the branch-related activities like mortgage and investment advising. It sort of sounds like smoke and mirrors, but it’s an incredibly sophisticated capability that–really for the first time in Canadian history –lets us securely identify people remotely. And that was built in three weeks.”

“To do this type of thing in weeks versus six months is extraordinary,” he notes.

“We built a world-class digital ID platform and deployed it to 3,500 advisors and every customer. To do this type of thing in weeks versus six months is extraordinary.”

Peter Tilton

Develop it and they will come

Pivots such as this have led to huge digital success for RBC. At the beginning of COVID-19, RBC identified that 500,000 of its customers were dedicated to branch-only banking. Over the last six months, the bank has on-boarded 400,000 digital customers, leading to a 29% overall increase in digital re-engagement. 

There is one stat Tilton brings up that serves to identify RBC’s digital growth: the percentage of a bank’s transactions that qualify as self-serve, which means they occur either via digital means or an ATM. Over the last three quarters, the percentage of RBC’s transactions that count as self-serve rose from 87.6% to 94.5%, representing just under a 7% total growth rate. 

“If you stop to think about that, anyone in banking will tell you that this digital self-serve rate changes by about 1% or 2% per year,” says Tilton. “We’ve seen a big shift towards digital self-service—around four years worth of transformation happening in under a year.” 

“I’ve been involved in digital banking across the world,” he continues, “and I’ve never seen a shift like that.”

Self-serve services

RBC’s other digital platforms have also undergone strong growth over the last six months. NOMI is a platform first launched in 2017 that offers a number of digital services, including AI-powered budgeting, cash flow planning, money-saving insights, and more. 

A look at RBC’s NOMI.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Tilton knew that millions of RBC customers would be pushed online, so the usage of NOMI was likely to climb as a result. In order to ease the transition, the digital team got to work on a feature that could easily guide users through the platform and set them up for success. 

“COVID accelerated the use and accelerated the depth of NOMI,” says Tilton. “We really rapidly launched a chatbot, and the reason why it was important to get it out as quickly as possible once COVID hit was because it works in 12 languages. While you might be able to chat on the phone to someone in French or English, this covered a much wider spectrum of languages.”

Ask NOMI debuted towards the beginning of the pandemic with the goal of alleviating anxiety for RBC clients while also guiding new mobile users towards their goals. Users can ask the chatbot questions like how to deposit a cheque, how much they spent on food last month, or how to pay a bill. 

“We accomplished this by not providing them a process of how to do something, instead we simply navigate them directly to where they need to be, to do what they need to do,” Benoit Germain, RBC’s senior director of online banking, wrote in a LinkedIn post. “Also, we’re supporting 12 different languages … we wanted to ensure that we could make it a little easier for newcomers to Canada to get some help with their banking, while they’re getting accustomed to a new country and in some cases learning a new language.”

“I’ve been involved in digital banking across the world and I’ve never seen a shift like this.”

Peter Tilton

So far, more than 2.3 million questions have been asked, and NOMI’s use is continuing to surge. Nearly 1.5 million customers use the AI budgeting tool, and in total, NOMI has provided 1.2 billion insights, which are delivered as notifications saying that things like the user is under-budget or spending a little too much. 

And ‘dwell time’—the average time a user spends on a page or platform—on RBC’s mobile app has also increased by a full minute over the pandemic, all the way up to seven and a half minutes. 

“An average dwell time of 7:30 in banking is pretty much unprecedented,” says Tilton. “We’re finding that customers are spending a lot of time in the app, reading these nudges, trying to use the help with their cash flow forecasting. NOMI has turned into an incredibly valuable tool for customers both in terms of helping them understand cash flow and also stay on top of money in what has been a really difficult time for a lot of people.”

The final digital frontier

With the COVID-19 pandemic beginning to wind down and business returning to normal, the digital shifts RBC has undertaken will not go anywhere. The biggest step that remains is continuing to bring advice banking online and into the homes and palms of clients while still focusing on compelling user experiences. 

“It’s about apps, balances, payments, and being able to open accounts yourself,” says Tilton. “What very few banks have got into, and what we’re moving into with our digital ID work, is how to build off our modern omnistack so that we can connect customers and advisors. If we didn’t have COVID-19, digitizing that might have been a four, maybe five-year journey. Now we’re building to have everything digital, including mortgages, financial planning, and connecting customers with advisors.”

Just in the last few weeks, RBC has prioritized the ability for customers to complete complex banking online such as renewing and refinancing home loans. One of the underlying factors responsible for this progression is that these advances are all taking place on a single technology stack. When a process or platform is digitized, it’s the same for the customers as it is the advisors, just with different permissions and regulations. Tilton says this may not seem like a big shift, but “it’s a profound one” when compared to how banks normally operate, and “it’s a very different way than how banks digitized in the past.”

“That is the frontier—how quickly we can build those capabilities so people can bank with us any way they like,” he says. “For me, it has been a rapid acceleration of what we’ve already built. We were already doing all the right things.”