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HAS COVID CONVERTED CUSTOMERS TO CONVERSATIONAL AI?

By Cathal McGloin, CEO of ServisBOT

 

A recent webinar hosted by Insurance Post asked customer service experts working at leading insurance companies whether social distancing would cause the demise of the traditional contact centre.

It was noted that, at the start of lockdown, insurers had anything between 15% and 50% of their contact centre employees working from home, which created a particular challenge for offshore operations. The assembled experts discussed whether they had seen any impact on customer satisfaction levels as their customer service colleagues adjusted to working from home.

 

Shorter queues

Andrew Jones, Head of Express and Retail Claims at Zurich insurance, noted customers’ willingness to use online portals because they assumed they would be waiting in a queue if they called the contact centre.

David Thompson, Director of Claims at Tesco Underwriting, noted that at the start of the UK’s lockdown in March, customers showed a great deal of empathy for the difficulties facing insurance contact centre staff as they adjusted to working from home. However, he noted that this early goodwill appeared to be returning to pre-COVID levels towards the end of September.

The webinar participants were asked to what extent technology such as chatbots and digital AI assistants had been used to assist with triaging insurance claims, to alleviate some of the pressure on contact centre staff, while still looking after customers.

David Thompson, Director of Claims at Tesco Underwriting, emphasised that when customers have been involved in traumatic events, they need to speak to a contact centre agent and value the empathy that can be provided during these conversations, adding “but certainly, there will be others who will be happier going through a digital journey.”

Paul Ridge, Banking and Insurance Specialist at SAS UK & Ireland, observed that consumers are becoming more accustomed to a range of channels available to them and a number of insurers are exploring how this shift could be used to introduce lower cost channels.

 

Distance Drives Digitisation

Ridge noted the value of using automation to take simple, routine, lower value tasks away from contact centre staff, so that they can focus on those customers who need more support. He believes that a good blend of technology and human skills can be used to benefit both employee experience and customer experience.

David Thompson agreed that automation and digitalisation had been ‘turbo-charged’ by the national lockdown. He underlined the importance of using technology to support the wellbeing of contact centre staff, noting that employee experience feeds directly into customer experience.

As Deloitte’s MD of Applied AI practice, Sherry Comes has observed, “While robotic process automation (RPA) and one-touch ordering buttons are transforming many of these tasks, they don’t always provide the most customer or worker-centric experience. However, finely-tuned conversational systems can.”

By employing conversational AI to understand the customer’s intent and automate the tasks and responses involved in issue resolution, or escalate their query to the right contact centre agent, resolution and CSAT levels remain high, while also reducing the number of routine issues that agents handle.

Digital AI assistants are key to driving down the cost to serve through either fully or partially automating routine customer interactions. AI assistants can also use these interactions to prioritise the correct course of action if they cannot fully automate to completion. By gathering pertinent information that can be passed on to agents, digital AI assistants save customers from having to repeat themselves once they get through to a customer service agent, helping the agent to resolve the issue more swiftly.

 

The personal touch 

Conversational AI applies natural language processing so that customer intent can be understood, appropriate responses can be provided, and actions can be automated to solve their issues, while still providing the option to speak to a human. The advantage is that consistent, high-quality responses can be provided at scale, without overwhelming contact centre employees when human resources are stretched because some employees are self-isolating, or when the organisation is handling a sudden spike in customer enquiries.

While enabling financial organisations to automate repetitive transactions, conversational AI also allows them to be personalised by referring back to elements of previous interactions. The benefit for customers is that they don’t have to repeat themselves and conversations can be picked up where they left off, at the customers’ convenience.

 

Designed for Digital Natives

According to Deloitte, “younger generations seem to be gravitating toward accessing information through chatbots, with 70 percent of millennials reporting a positive experience after using them.”

Whatever their age, when applying conversational AI, brands must make it clear to customers that they are engaging with a digital assistant and not a human. It’s equally important to avoid trapping customers in a ‘bot loop’ and to provide a clear route to speak to a human if a query can’t be resolved by the digital assistant.

PWC believes that organisations that get their branding and persona development right within their conversational AI can create a customer experience that is akin to engaging with a human agent. However, getting it wrong will alienate users. EY emphasises the need to use the right data when ‘training’ conversational AI, explaining that “The bot uses logic to determine user inquiries and connect with enterprise systems to get the desired results”. Therefore, the bot is only as smart as the data used to build it.

This is why The AA Ireland invested time in studying genuine livechat conversations when developing its successful chatbot project, the Quote Helper Bot, so that they understood what people asked, how they asked, and what the intent was behind their questions. As a result, the Quote Helper Bot provided consistent on-brand responses that were based on live chat conversations with previous customers who had the same requirements. When social distancing measures were introduced in March, The AA Ireland was able to re-apply what it had learned and quickly spin up a call deflection bot, within 48 hours, to ease pressure on contact centre staff as they adjusted to working from home.

 

The future:

Paul Ridge observed, “The pandemic has given us the chance to glimpse into the future and see what role the contact centre will serve.”

Andrew Jones, Head of Express & Retail Claims, Zurich, commented, “A lot of claims are settled without using voice. In the future, rather than big contact centres, we’ll see more smaller collaboration centres, with people coming in one or two days a week and for training”.

Angus Rogers believes that the traditional service model will change, saying, “There will always be a need for people to work together, but I think that the model of the contact centre we see today will change.”

What we have seen is that organisations are using a blend of conversational AI and highly skilled customer service agents to automate routine enquiries, swiftly adapt working practices to abide by social distancing rules and deliver the right experience for customers and employees alike.”

 

Business

THE EFFECTS AUTONOMOUS DRIVING WILL HAVE ON THE TRANSPORTATION AND LOGISTICS INDUSTRY

Stefan Spendrup, Vice President of Sales Northern and Western Europe at SOTI 

 

‘Big thinking’ articles on how to disrupt industries from retail to healthcare have been so prolific in recent years that you would be remiss in assuming we have moved forward from the digital transformation era. Rather, it is important to think of these transformations as the natural extension of a technologically driven world, in which companies are constantly adapting to meet ever-evolving market demands and customer needs. As the pace of development in technological capabilities has increased, so too has companies’ access to technology. With this comes an expectation that companies remain current with the latest advancements.

 

Following the mobile-first era, the next stage in the evolution of digital disruption is the move toward robotics through the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI.) Once companies have integrated a comprehensive mobility strategy within their operations, we find them increasingly turning to “what’s next”; solutions that will give them an even greater advantage against competitors and help them stay ahead of the field. Machine learning is poised to meet that market demand.

 

The transportation and logistics (T&L) industry is at the forefront of this trend. An industry that may seem at first to be traditional and unchanged by technology over the past half century, has been among the earliest adopters of disruptive technology.

 

Autonomous trucking is the next frontier for the transportation industry. As larger enterprises move away from traditional practices, smaller organisations can follow and benefit from the mainstream acceptance of autonomous technology. This can be seen in areas such as:

  • Monitoring, information sharing and exchange across remote devices
  • Management of mobile devices, remotely, which can eventually be applied to powering and controlling autonomous devices
  • Remote support
  • Performance data and analysis

 

The numbers make the case. In the UK, 1.44 billion tonnes of goods were shipped via heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in 2019, which is an increase of 2% when compared to the year before. Global e-commerce sales are set to reach $5 trillion (£3.8 trillion) by 2021, driven largely by lowered consumer costs for online shopping and the ease of ordering online for everything from fruit to furniture. This trend is not likely to decline, especially as many are looking to limit in-store interactions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be difficult for transportation and logistics companies to ignore the financial benefits of automation alone.

 

Evidential benefits of automation within the supply chain and operational practices already exist. This can be explicitly seen in Amazon’s famous robot warehouses. These IoT-enabled robotic devices can sift through packages faster than humans can. They can work anywhere and under pretty much any condition, which is why they have been employed within the supply chain to speed up delivery and enhance the end-customer experience. The Amazon example indicates that as technology advances, adoption is likely to surge.

 

When turning our focus onto delivery services, we are seeing incredible interest in autonomous trucking, which has the potential to deliver faster, more predictable and more reliable service. These benefits do not negate the valuable role humans will need to play in overseeing quality control, providing support and conducting data analytics functions to aid in further innovation.

 

Prior to implementing full-scale autonomous trucking, shippers will need to ensure that the management and assessment of a connected fleet meets jurisdictional and federal legislation in addition to minimising cybersecurity risks. High levels of connectivity often translate into greater security risks, and companies will need to prioritise security to ensure systems are built with cyber resilience capabilities and can respond quickly in the event of a cyber breach.

 

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Business

ACCOUNTANTS HAVE BECOME CRITICAL TO THE SURVIVAL OF BUSINESSES AND THEIR REPUTATIONS DURING COVID-19

Stuart Cobbe, Director of Growth, Europe, MindBridge

 

The opportunity for fraudulent activity to flourish as finance departments operate remotely with less oversight in these extraordinary Covid-19 times is inevitable. Government loans and financial support have been given out with little or no accountability to businesses that are struggling with the change in their trading environment and as a consequence businesses find themselves in financial need.

There is already evidence of corporations handing back furlough grants as HMRC offers a 90-day amnesty, but without rapid data-driven insight and risk stratification, businesses may not know the extent of their exposure. Indeed many businesses face the daunting prospect of repaying loans at the same time as paying deferred VAT early next year in a far from certain trading environment. Stuart Cobbe, Director of Growth, Europe, MindBridge explains that the role of the accountant has now become critical to businesses and their reputations.

 

Unlocking transparency

The Covid-19 landscape is fluid and ever-changing, and businesses require accurate visibility of all aspects of their business in order to plan effectively for the future and to understand their financial position. As the economy continues to recover to a new ‘normal’, companies need to focus on the next 6 months. How many ‘zombie’ businesses are only operating due to deferred VAT payments? How many companies will fail when they cannot repay loans? The role of the accountant is vital in unlocking this transparency to provide data-driven, actionable insights.

After all, there are many questions around how government financing has been used, from grants to loans, furlough payments to VAT deferments. As of the 20th September, the total cost of furlough claims has reached a staggering almost £40 billion, despite 30,000 applications being rejected, with many likely to have been attempts to defraud the taxpayer. Research by economists from Cambridge, Oxford and Zurich universities found that as many as two thirds of furloughed workers continued to work.

For businesses that do not understand the extent of their exposure, they risk facing a HMRC-imposed tax charge equivalent of up to 100% of the grant to which any recipient was not entitled and was not repaid. It is, therefore, interesting to see the number of large organisations now publicly revealing plans to repay all furlough payments. For many, this is an opportunity to boost corporate reputation and demonstrate a commitment to rediscovering business as usual. However, given the huge pressures businesses have been under in recent months, many CFOs and FDs may not have the full visibility they require to effectively manage this without the power of audit.

 

Financial Risks

This is about far more than reputational damage, the potential misuse of furlough is far from the only financial risk. The extraordinary shift in every business’ modus operandi over the past few months has opened the door for opportunistic fraud. New sources of income; staff working from home with limited oversight; the financial pressures – both business and personal – created by the recession. The misappropriation of assets should be a very real concern for businesses of every size.

For organisations that have relied upon grants and loans to survive, an employee exploiting the lack of oversight to syphon funds for personal use could tip the company into failure. Companies must determine how – or whether – deferred VAT payments and loan repayments can be made. Is the company truly solvent or no more than a ‘zombie’ business operating with a balance sheet propped up by short term government finance?

 

Actionable data

Business resilience and reputation is a priority in this era, and CFOs or FDs may be struggling to establish trust across businesses now operating under a whole new range of pressures, from slimmer margins to a disjointed, remote workforce. There is an obvious need for complete visualisation of financial risks, and accountants play a crucial role in unlocking this data.

The rapid identification of mistakes in government support applications, potential fraud and the analysis of which deferred payments and loan repayments can be made and when – whilst ensuring other risk factors do not jeopardise business stability – is essential to futureproof the business, and accountants can assess data to provide this information in a complete and actionable format to lead smarter company decisions. This is the data insight CFOs and FDs need today.

Traditional financial risk assessment models will not be adequate. At best, problems will be revealed months after the fact. Companies need rapid identification of areas of unexpected activity today. This is where accountants and finance departments using sophisticated machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques can deliver real business value by rapidly assessing financial data and surfacing unexpected activity. Armed with this information, finance teams will know where to focus activities, the questions to ask and the remedial action to take. This information will drive departments and remedial action to ensure business success and growth as the nation gets back to its feet.

In short, accountants and finance professionals can provide the answers businesses need today, whilst helping managers to plan for the future effectively, despite the changes in policies and protocols as the pandemic continues to throw curveballs. An audit can quickly identify problems including but not limited to, cash flow, fraud, misuse of grants, loan repayment issues – all whilst offering the guidance and steps to safeguard the business to promote resilience and protect the solvency and reputation.

 

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