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Vodafone chatbot will give customers 'instant answers' but won't replace humans just yet

Wednesday, April 19th 2017 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

Artificial intelligence will not replace human customer service agents – but it will take on tasks currently done by humans, according to one of the companies behind Vodafone’s new AI chatbot.

Last week – as well as dropping roaming charges across Europe – Vodafone launched TOBi, a virtual customer service agent offering a web chat service through the provider’s website and, soon, via the My Vodafone app.

TOBi uses artificial intelligence from IBM Watson and is powered by LivePerson’s LiveEngage messaging platform.

It has been piloted over the past three months and will be rolled out over the next year as part of a wider £2bn investment in Vodafone’s network and services.

Rurik Bradbury, global head of research and communications for LivePerson, said TOBi will answer simple queries quickly and pass on more complex issues “seamlessly” to a human rep.

“In this way, customers get the best of both worlds: the instant answers and 24/7 service of a bot, but the ability to talk with a human if the bot can’t understand them,” he told Cable.co.uk.

Mr Bradbury admitted that “consumers are still a little sceptical” on the use of chatbots in customer service.

“Their main concern is being misunderstood by a bot,” he said. “This is why the ‘hybrid-bot’ model – a bot and human working together in one thread – is so important.

“Bots will not fully replace human agents, but they will replace tasks done by humans.

“Bots are not yet ready to act as standalone agents. Instead, they will act as specialized agents to help replace certain tasks, such as changing an address or paying a bill.

“This frees up human agents to handle the more complex and personal interactions.”

'UK ahead of the US'

Mr Bradbury said messages from TOBi and human agents stay in the same thread, like conversations in WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.

“This solves a lot of frustration in customer care, as agents can scroll up and read the past history to get up to speed on the customer’s issues without the customer having to repeat their issue to multiple representatives.

“Customers can also look back in the thread to retrieve an answer to a question they may have forgotten.

According to research by IBM, 55% of UK consumers say the most important factor in the ideal customer experience is getting a prompt and effective response to queries.

Mr Bradbury is confident TOBi will provide customers with an answer in one visit: “Data from one large US telco using LivePerson in Q4, 2016 shows an absolutely tiny escalation rate of only 0.28% – this is a tiny fraction of the 10% often found in traditional voice-based contact centres.”

He also praised British companies for being at the cutting edge of chatbot technology.

“The UK is actually ahead of the US in many ways. Two early pioneers in bots for customer service, Vodafone and RBS, are both UK-based and rolling out our hybrid bots, integrated with their human agent workforce.

“While there are many bots in the US, they tend to be experimental rather than real-world and operating at scale in a customer contact centre environment.”

As well as investing in new technology, Vodafone spent £30m on improving customer service and training last year and in March announced the creation of a further 2,100 (human) customer service roles.

The improvements would appear to be necessary. Vodafone was fined £4.6m by Ofcom for “serious and sustained” breaches of customer protection rules in October and the company has been responsible for more complaints to the regulator than any other mobile provider for the past nine quarters.

Neil Blagden, Vodafone’s UK director of customer service and operations, said TOBi will help improve the service customers receive.

“If customers have a question or want to raise an issue, we know they don’t want to wait,” he said.

"So introducing TOBi is an exciting step forward in giving our customers the quick and seamless service they want. Our ambition is to give our customers the best experience possible: TOBi is another important step in our journey to achieving that ambition.”

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