Powered by cutting edge AI tech, TOBi the chatbot has arrived and from this month (July 2017) he’ll also be able to help with the purchase of SIM only plans. We talk tech with Vodafone UK’s Head of Contact Transformation, Richard Clarke…

With the rise and rise of messaging apps and AI virtual assistants, the way we interact is changing. It’s something Vodafone UK’s Head of Contact Transformation Richard Clarke knows all about, and it’s a major area of focus in our quest to serve you better.

To find out more, we caught up with Richard about the UK–leading tech set to make your interactions with us easier. Meet TOBi the helpful chatbot, and My Vodafone’s brand new in-app messaging service, Message Us – coming soon to a phone near you..!

Your TOBi update

We first introduced TOBi, our chatbot back in April, and since then our friendly chatbot’s had a great run assisting some of our customers via live chat on the Vodafone UK website. At the moment TOBi can assist with basic enquiries via live chat on the Vodafone UK website. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and predefined rules, he simulates human conversation and responds to customer queries to provide services and information – just like one of our regular advisors.

This month, we’re launching Message Us – a new in-app messaging system designed to better suit your lifestyle. And, while TOBi’s not yet integrated with Message Us within the My Vodafone app, he is equipped with some handy new skills.

From now on (July 2017) when you contact the Vodafone UK team online via live chat, TOBi will not only be able to help you with basic account enquiries and troubleshooting, he’ll also be able to help you through the purchase of SIM-only plans.The idea is to increase the functionality of TOBi over time to the point where he’ll be able to help you purchase devices and work seamlessly alongside our human advisors within the Message Us platform. Instead of browsing through all the options and completing multiple steps when you already know which phone or tablet you’re after, you’ll simply tell TOBi exactly what you want to buy, ask any questions as necessary and complete your purchase online just as you might in-store.

It’s exciting stuff, but we know we’re only just scratching the surface when it comes to all this tech can offer. Watch this space for further developments and read on to find out more about TOBi…

Firstly, what is a chatbot?

Chatbots use an Artificial Intelligence engine, machine learning predefined rules to simulate human conversation. Chatbot applications respond to written or spoken prompts to deliver services or information in a personable, human and often quirky way. And, since our customers are gradually moving away from calling as their preferred communication method, Richard says our new chatbot TOBi, is just the tool to meet future demands:

“We’re currently embarking on a major project to transform the way we interact with our customers, and to bring our approach bang up to date with customer expectations,” Richard says. “With 55% of UK consumers stating the most important factor in the ideal customer experience is a prompt and effective response to queries*, TOBi is our answer to providing customers with a quick and easy web chat service. As part of this, we’re seeing a lot of demand – and not just from younger generations – for a range of different interaction methods like messaging and self-service.”

TOBi is our answer to providing customers with a quick and easy web chat service.

So how does TOBi work?

“Basically, we’re using two bits of software for the pilot,” Richard says.

“The messaging part is a product we’ve been working with for a number of years from a company called LivePerson. They’re the leading provider of messaging and chat technologies, and we’ve incorporated the latest version of their software into our app. And while we continue to assess multiple solutions and technologies to implement this, the pilot platform is currently powered by a combination of IBM Watson and LivePerson. In a blend of the two cutting edge technologies, IBM Watson provides the artificial intelligence solution to power TOBi.

“Whenever a customer says something like ‘I want to change my address’ TOBi understands what the customer means and can link it back to the right customer journey. We then build conversational flows around that journey. If you said ‘I’m going on holiday to Paris, I need to check the roaming charges’ for example, TOBi will understand you’re going to Paris and that Paris is in France so respond with roaming information for France in a conversational answer. That answer might be something like ‘here are the charges’ and then ‘if you want to make your travel cheaper, we’ve got a roaming product you can add. Would you like to do that?’

“The same information is available on our website, but it can sometimes be harder to find in the context you need. It’s not as engaging and it doesn’t offer you as a customer the chance to interact, ask questions, clarify information and ultimately put you in touch with a human advisor if needed.”

Does this mean no more humans?

In a word, no. While TOBi provides a handy way to deal with transactional enquiries, Richard says the tech’s designed to complement, rather than replace, Vodafone’s normal advisors. In fact, we’re actually welcoming over 2,000 new customer service reps to the Vodafone UK family at the moment as part of our investment in customer services.

“TOBi plays a really important role within the new messaging service, but it’s only one part of the picture,” Richard explains. “The combination of person and chatbot is where the real magic lies.”

As such, achieving a seamless transition between chatbot and a normal advisor has been a major focus for the team:

“TOBi’s great for dealing with simple transactions, but if the bot gets stuck halfway through for any reason, that seamless transition to a human advisor is vital. From simple transactions, to more complex enquiries – or even simple transactions that turn into more complex enquiries – this new system enables a whole combination of scenarios to be dealt with within one user-friendly interface.

“All you have to do is send a message. We’ll then message back quickly and automatically, in slightly more time with a human being, or a mixture of the two.”

“You’ll be able to speak to TOBi about a range of queries, including device troubleshooting, roaming costs, usage and order tracking while TOBi will soon be part of a wider WhatsApp-type messaging interface inside the My Vodafone app – something we’ll be rolling out gradually across the network from April. It’ll allow any customer to message Vodafone at any time (yes it’s 24/7) to deal with issues or transactions at their own pace.”

And of course, you can still pick up the phone and call us, tweet @VodafoneUK’s social channels, head in store or browse the website!

What are the benefits of in app messaging?

Richard says one major benefit is the ability to duck in and out of conversations, saving precious time:

“Traditional voice channels require a customer to give up a portion of their time in one go. Finding the space to deal with that in your day can be challenging,” he says. “So features like messaging allow customers to ping off a message and revisit the chat when it’s a more appropriate time for them , or have a really fast conversation there and then if that works better.”

“If you’re working, travelling, looking after the kids or in the middle of making tea you’ll have the flexibility to come and go from the conversation as you see fit without having to spend your time with a phone to your ear. And, if you’re dealing with something super transactional, you don’t even have to wait for a person to respond – the bot can respond in an instant!”

When will we see it in action?

The new messaging interface has been in the testing phase for the past few months, and will be introduced gradually to our customers from April:

“While we’ve been piloting the system for the past few months, it’s brand new technology and we want to ensure we’re able to deliver a fantastic experience for all our customers” Richard says.

Luckily, he adds that from tests so far, customer feedback has been really positive:

“The main thing we’ve been piloting is the chatbot, because it’s fairly new technology. It’s been fascinating, as most of our customers don’t actually realise they’re speaking to a bot. That’s not our intention, of course – we want to be really transparent and say ‘this is a bot, it will give you really quick answers to a lot of things, and if it gets stuck it will hand you over to a human advisor’. But doing that in a way that’s really succinct is actually quite tricky, so we’ve spent a lot of time designing the right icons, coming up with a name, and adding some human quirks.”

“We want to be really transparent and say ‘this is a bot, it will give you really quick answers to a lot of things, and if it gets stuck it will hand you over to a human advisor’”

And that even goes down to the spelling of TOBi’s name:

“We’ve spelt it with a mixture of capital and lowercase letters and developed an opening statement to make it really clear to customers that TOBi is an intelligent (but ultimately automated) response service.”

Richard says customers involved in the testing have been really happy to have a quick chat with TOBi to establish the nature of their enquiry, or complete an entire transaction with the chatbot depending on their situation:

“The main benefit has of course been speed, but that’s coupled with accuracy” Richard says. “TOBi literally answers in milliseconds, whereas with typical chat or call, you might be put on hold, transferred to another department or have to wait a minute or two between responses as the advisor reads and considers your question.”

More time to read the blog, we say! Roll on chatbot TOBi.

*IBM Institute for Business Value Global Telecom Consumer survey Fall 2016

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