Bringing the human touch to AI

We spoke to Alberto Chierici, Co-Founder and CPO of SPIXIIi, the innovative chatbot company that’s transforming the way insurers talk to their customers.

Chatbots have received a lot of press lately. Unlike some other recent tech trends, this digital innovation looks set to stay. So, it’s time to start reading up and understanding what a huge impact Artificial Intelligence means for customer service and business communication. We sat down with Alberto from SPIXII, which develops bespoke AI customer service agents for the insurance industry, to find out how his start-up went from strength-to-strength.
 
 
Can you give me an elevator pitch for SPIXII?

We’re on a mission to transform insurance. We want to reinvent the relationship between the insurer and the customer. To do that, we’re providing insurers with cutting edge chatbot technology, ready to guide customers through the buying, claiming, or customer service processes.
 
 
What was the inspiration behind the idea?

The whole thing started when we were studying as actuaries, and there were two things about the industry that we wanted to change. The first was the actual process of buying a policy. When we came to do it ourselves, we found it so frustrating that we procrastinated and avoided it. And second, as insurance professionals, we saw how difficult it was to innovate from the inside in such a well-established field. That’s what led us to take the decision to step back and look at changing things from the outside.
 
 
What convinced you that the market really needed SPIXII?

When we first developed the idea, we conducted a lot of customer interviews. We went out talking to people in coffee shops or on the street, in offices and on university campuses, and we found that nobody really wanted what we were offering. So we started from scratch and said: let’s learn what the biggest issues are for consumers in buying insurance, especially for the younger generations. We picked up on two really important points, which have shaped everything we’ve done since then. First, contrary to the stereotype, millennials do care about insurance. They go through life-changing decisions like everybody else, and they want just as much financial protection. Secondly, instant messaging plays a really important part of that process. Almost 99% of the people we spoke to said that they messaged friends or families before buying insurance.

At that moment we knew a chatbot was viable. This was before we had even realised that chatbots were about to go mainstream, and we ended up launching a day before Facebook launched its chatbot extension – so the timing was perfect.
 
 
What was the most defining part of your growth as a business?

The initial idea came to us in 2013, but back then the insurance companies weren’t interested – they were concerned above all with regulation, so we had to wait for the market to mature. It was in 2015 that we saw a massive shift in the companies’ priorities. They started to put customer experience and digital transformation at the top of the agenda. All the big players – Aviva, AXA, Alliance, to name a few – started to invest heavily in technology start-ups. So we decided that this was our moment.
 
 
What was your experience with accelerator programmes?

Since we started out, we’ve actually benefitted from five accelerators, and we’ve just got access to a new one, so we’re quite accustomed to them! One of the most important things we’ve learned is that accelerators can be divided into different groups, depending on what you’re looking for. Some of them offer fantastic funding opportunities, having established useful networks of investors. Others specialise in putting businesses in touch with other businesses, and they can be especially efficient because often there’s no cost involved apart from time. You really don’t always have to offer up equity. Overall, a deal cycle in our industry can take sixteen to eighteen months – but with the help of free-to-access accelerator programmes, we’ve been able to close deals in three to six months.
 
 
It seems like you want to put a human touch into AI from the way you describe your product – customers will be able to message as they would a friend or family member and receive personalised advice immediately – how do you achieve this? Is personalisation the most important aspect of it?

When we were developing SPIXII, we realised that to make the tool as personable as possible, we needed to engage with consumer psychology. Different people react to different types of message, and it’s important to craft the conversation accordingly. So, for example, SPIXII’s greeting for a young professional on a Monday at 9am will be very different to its greeting for a stay-at-home spouse searching for insurance on a Saturday afternoon.
 
 
Do those learnings have an impact on the way you market SPIXII?

Absolutely, yes – we’re working on building the same principles into our Facebook and Twitter platforms, keeping things chatty and engaging. That’s part of our broader strategy to humanise insurance, to make it more accessible and easy to understand. The way we see it, there’s no need for all the industry jargon. Insurance is actually pretty straightforward, and everybody needs it.
 
 
Are you planning on moving integrating SPIXII with social media?

It depends on which insurer we’re working with, because each of them is different. Some may not want to operate through Facebook just yet. Right now, it’s about establishing trust, and for some customers, a website-based chatbot feels more secure.
 
 
Are you able to adapt SPIXII for different brands, with a different tone of voice or a different personality?

Absolutely. We like to sit down with our partners and establish how they want the chatbot to communicate, how they want to be perceived, and how they want people to feel when they’re talking to it. It can’t replace a customer service team, but it can take pressure off them – so it’s a great opportunity for a brand to refine the way it interacts with consumers.
 
 
How accessible is the product for smaller businesses? Could a chatbot work for them?

It’s a good question, because actually integrating a new chatbot is much harder for some of the larger providers because they will usually already have in place some complex legacy systems. So, in fact, it’s easier to implement our solution with an SME. Naturally, working with the larger providers is very important for us, but we’ve seen a real rise in interest from SMEs, and we’ve now begun work with several of them.
 
 
What would you say to businesses who are nervous about including a chatbot for security reasons, or customers who are nervous about giving their personal financial information to an unfamiliar, ‘non-human’ interface?

As a business, invest in a chatbot provider that prioritises data protection. Because chatbots are so new, your customers may be wary about providing personal information. But this trust will develop over time, and you need a provider whose software is robust enough to earn that trust. At SPIXII, we provide bank-level security. All customer data is encrypted and secured in a secure Oracle Database. And this security is tested regularly to make sure it’s up-to-date. For customers, talking to a chatbot is just like filling out a form. Just make sure you trust the company and exercise the same amount of caution as you would on any other website. ​
 
 
Sometimes small businesses and SMEs feel that digital transformation is too costly or complex. How could you convince a small or medium-sized business owner that your solution could add value to their operation?

Let me give you the example of a client we’ve been working with over the past couple of weeks – a family-run insurance agency founded more than a hundred years ago, with a local customer base in the low thousands. One advantage they have over a much larger insurance provider is that they know their customers more personally. If they can automate a lot of the repetitive questions they ask of every customer, that will free up more time for them to use that knowledge locating the best solutions for those customers.
 
 
You must have seen a lot of demand – so how have you selected which companies to partner with?

We were friends before we were business partners, and that’s important for us. It’s shaped the culture and the values which drive us today, and it helps inform the decisions we take on who to work with. One of the most important selection criteria for our partners is an approach to customer service which aligns with ours. We’re not all about selling more and cutting costs. We set out to make buying and using insurance an easier, simpler, and more friendly process. That was our priority when we first conceived of SPIXII, and it still is today.