Tech innovation four: Artificial intelligence
When HSBC launched call centres based in India in 2002, there was uproar from British customers. “How will they relate to us?!” people cried. “They won’t know about the weather, or what’s happening in Corrie!”
A bucket-load of training ensued to make sure that the interpersonal call-centre experience for HSBC customers still felt intimate, in spite of the fact the teller was thousands of miles away in a different country. Staff were even given different, more British-sounding names.
Fast forward 15 years, and some companies have taken the next step, introducing artificial intelligence to answer calls or chat online with customers. According to Forbes, global funding for AI-based start-ups grew by 60 percent between 2015 and 2016 and Ben Lee, CEO of US digital development agency Neon Roots, believes that AI is set to revolutionise “nearly every aspect of the modern world”.
“As someone whose company is working on building four new chat bots right now, allow me to say this: If you’re going to stay competitive over the next five to 10 years, you should consider how you can incorporate AI into your business. And I think chatbots are one of the easiest ways to start,” Lee said in a recent blog post.
A chatbot we are probably all familiar with is Apple’s voice-activated assistant Siri. Need to know something and can’t be bothered to type it into Google? The press of your thumb leads to copious results. Want to hear a computerised, female voice pretend to beatbox? She can do that too – let no one say coders don’t have a sense of humour. But aren’t these chatbots just a novelty? Maybe right now, but not forever.
“Thanks to their ability to process language, already have the potential to handle tasks like data entry, scheduling and other basic assistant-like tasks,” Lee continues, noting that using chatbots to schedule medical appointments and meetings will soon be a daily reality.
“Chatbots are powerful because they provide the most natural user interface of all: language. [They let] users voice their questions and interests in their own words.”
For those of us still flummoxed by certain types of software, or if you have a visual or hearing disability, then using a chatbot is an accessible way to access online services that might previously have been off-limits to you.
Air New Zealand has cottoned on, recently launching its online chatbot Oscar, the first of its kind in Aotearoa. The vast majority of domestic flights in New Zealand are booked online, and Oscar opens up the opportunity to interface with online booking in a similar way to how you would speak to your travel agent. It will offer links to prices and schedules, and also to useful travel information, like booking a flight for an unaccompanied minor. It’s currently quite a clunky experience – you have to ask the right questions, although Oscar will also direct you to do that if it doesn’t understand – but lots of work is being put into improving the functionality of the bots and the user interface.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work around customer experience with large public transport organisations overseas,” says Wilkinson from First Retail. “Often they get a large number of calls or email enquiries at peak times they can’t cope with. What they’re using now is essentially a ‘response bot’.”
The user can ask a simple question, like what time is the next bus from their location, and get a real-time, instant response. It also learns as it is used. Wilkinson says this is game-changing stuff, offering the London Underground chatbot as one of the smartest examples. (“It’s like Siri on steroids.”)
But do people want to talk to a robot? And aren’t we just doing real customer service staff out of a job?
“Look at the choice people have between using a self-checkout or a manned till at the supermarket,” says Wilkinson. “Consumers have been conditioned to be empowered to do anything we want to, and to be comfortable shopping autonomously without much interaction.”
“We still need people to apply the rules and optimise the bots,” says Rebairo, reassuringly. “Also, there’s only a certain level you can get to with a bot right now. The customer still needs to be able to speak to a person and resolve certain issues one to one.”
The benefit of using chatbots to get to this point, says Rebairo, is faster response time, and a well-briefed human at the other end.
“The expectation is for personalisation. People don’t want to be qualified twice,” says Rebairo, noting the bot can pass the information on so the human has it ready for your conversation. “It’s also about speed of response. Chatbots don’t replace call centre staff, they work with them to improve speed, and stop customers from being pushed elsewhere.”