Meet Lavinia Morris, the woman leading tech innovation at KBC in Ireland
Human connection and making things as easy and hassle-free as possible is the mission for this impressive COO, who is ticking lots of boxes at the challenger bank
KBC chief operating officer Lavinia Morris: “I really liked the KBC story, its ‘doing differently’, a digital-but-human approach.” Photograph: Naoise Culhane
Sometimes we don’t have to look too far from home for inspiration. For Lavinia Morris, her father is who she gives credit to for her love of science and technology. He is, she says, the biggest “influencer” in her life.
“My dad is in his 80s now, but he worked in a science laboratory. He was really keen to give us an appreciation of science so he would bring home things like Bunsen burners and pipettes and we’d carry out experiments in the kitchen,” says Morris.
Little wonder that she and all her siblings went on to have great careers in science and technology.
Morris studied electronic engineering at NUI Galway and began her career as a power engineer with ESB out in the field – often literally – designing transmission pylons. After a few years she swapped her hard hat and boots for corporate attire, joining AIB’s graduate programme. “It was the start of the first technology boom so at that time they were actively recruiting science and technology graduates,” she says.
Morris worked on its first online banking rollout; her first exposure to consumer-facing financial services technology. From there she moved to life assurance company Friends First – now part of Aviva – where she held a dual-facing role both as a senior technologist and an internal change manager.
A similar role followed in aviation leasing when she took up a senior management position in SMBC, an aircraft lessor, combining strategic business development and IT transformation.
At every step along the way Morris learned that the technology used in any business must be subordinate to the user. In retail banking, what matters most is what the technology can do for customers – and how it feels to use it.
It’s a guiding principle for Morris in her current role as chief operating officer at KBC Ireland, a position she took up just over a year ago. Her decision was largely driven by the bank’s approach to technology. “I really liked the KBC story, its ‘doing differently’, a digital-but-human approach,” she explains.
Tech success in her book is not about bits, bytes or buzzwords. “It’s about using technology to make a difference to people’s lives,” she says.
“What moving to KBC did was allow me to take my tech skills and my change skills and combine them to provide consumers with an alternative to the traditional banking experience.”
It’s banking, not boring
So if you think banking is boring, think again. “For us it’s about understanding the fine lines between the digital and the human. It’s about looking at banking from the consumer’s perspective, actively finding out what the customer wants and needs from their bank, and delivering that for them.”
Morris is under no illusion about how people feel about banking. “None of us starts the day wondering, ‘How am I going to interact with my bank today?’ As customers we just want the interaction to be as easy and seamless as possible.”
Digital with a human touch
Right now, banking is going through a fundamental shift. On the one side are “legacy” banks, those big household names with long histories. On the other are the “fintechs”, new arrivals gaining consumer interest because of easy to use payment services and snazzy apps.
It’s about providing digital banking in a hassle-free, convenient way
As a challenger bank, KBC sits slap bang in the middle. It offers consumers the best of both worlds, she says. There is the reassurance of a big, well capitalised bank behind it as well as the sharp focus on user friendly, secure digital services. But KBC also provides that all-important human interaction, if you need it, thanks to staff on hand at hubs and over the phone.
“It’s about providing digital banking in a hassle-free, convenient way, but if you want to come and talk to us, you can. That blend is very important to us. It’s being digital with a human touch,” says Morris, who says her primary mission is to bring KBC further along that trajectory. “It’s why we are investing so heavily in our digital agenda.”
Giving customers the controller
Among the biggest initiatives Morris has overseen since joining KBC has been the upgrade of its core banking system to the most up to date Temenos platform, a globally used digital banking platform.
It gave KBC the foundation on which to build a whole new raft of digital offerings, starting with the launch of its digital pension experience, which is managed entirely in-app.
It’s giving customers what they want
“It’s about keeping it simple,” Morris stresses. “The innovative and differentiating pension proposition has been developed to deliver an all-in-one solution to customers through the KBC app. Customers can start a personalised pension fund through the app, with the option to then increase, decrease or pause contributions while reviewing their fund performance in real-time. We put the customer in control as they can track their progress against their own retirement goals.”
At KBC the user experience is much more akin to consumer apps than it is to banking. For example, its pensions and investment products allow customers to determine their risk profile and appetite, using a simple and engaging approach.
“It’s giving customers what they want – when we introduced digital and mobile wallets on wearables, people thought it was a bit gimmicky. But they came into their own in the lockdown with the rise of contactless payments. Now we are making starting a pension easy for our customers.”
The robots are coming
The pandemic is providing fresh impetus to the transition to digital, she says. But again, “it’s not about the technology itself, it’s about how do we make the customer experience as easy as possible, about using the tech in a clever way.”
We use technology to offer a better service to our customers, it’s that simple
It’s why Morris views the wider use of technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence, which KBC already uses in its back office processes, with happy anticipation. As a director of the Irish Banking Culture Board, she gets asked about technology a lot, she says, much of it coming from a place of concern.
“People worry about what it will mean for the future of banking and insurance, but this technology is not going to displace humans. For me it’s about taking the robotic element out of human work and freeing people up to do more of the interesting stuff, and the stuff they are good at, supporting our customers.
“It’s not a threat, it’s a helper. We use technology to offer a better service to our customers, it’s that simple. For me, as a technologist at heart, I can genuinely say, it’s not about technology, it’s about people, and that’s what makes KBC such a great place to work.” Her dad would surely agree.
To discover more about KBC’s life and pension products visit kbc.ie/lifeandpensions