TOBi or not TOBi? AI is transforming the customer experience

As companies look for new ways to meet rising customer expectations, some are embracing the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Vodafone’s TOBi, an AI-driven customer service agent, is leading the way.

If you work with digital technology, follow the news, or simply have a taste for sci-fi movies, you’ve probably already come across the idea of Artificial Intelligence. Put simply, AI is a computer system that is capable of performing tasks we’d normally associate with humans, like facial recognition, decision-making, or conversation.

Neil Blagden, Director of Customer Services and Operations at Vodafone, is overseeing the launch of TOBi, an AI-driven service assistant, capable of resolving customer concerns with intelligent questions and friendly conversation. We caught up with him to find out why TOBi is being introduced, how it all works, and why the tool could be the future of customer service.
 
 
Chatbots and AIs have been increasingly on the rise to help solve customer service issues. What specifically was the problem that TOBi was brought online to solve?

Our customers have every right to expect quick and effective digital service options when it comes to managing their relationship with Vodafone. Naturally, there are times when we all want to speak with an advisor, but there are also times when we have a simple question which requires a simple answer. It’s about making sure that everybody gets the information that they need, as quickly as possible.

We’re a large business, and we need to make sure that each customer has the most direct route to the right answer. TOBi was introduced to make their lives easier. If he has the knowledge to help solve the problem quickly, he will. And if he hasn’t yet learnt the answer, he will seamlessly hand over to a human advisor.
 
 
Tell us a little bit more about the background of TOBi. How does it work and how does it currently approach customer service?

We’ve used cutting edge AI technology to enable TOBi to interact with our customers conversationally. TOBi can take a set of words provided and determine meaning, tone, and intent. Once he understands what our customer needs – and that’s more than 90% of the time – he can provide both simple and complex answers, and even make the necessary changes to the account in question. For some of our customers, downloading apps or searching through complex websites can be off-putting, but interacting conversationally is much more natural.
 
 
How is Vodafone UK ensuring that TOBi delivers against customer expectations of quality service? What quality controls are in place?

Because TOBi is new, we keep a particularly close eye on those conversations. If he does get stuck, he hands over to a human advisor, who has access to everything TOBi’s already covered. The technology is capable of machine learning to keep things efficient for our customers, but all of the improvements and enhancements TOBi undergoes are created and implemented by Vodafone staff.
 
 
How do you ensure that TOBi retains a human touch in its interactions with customers?

When we started out with this project, we spent a lot of time developing TOBi with our customers, who helped to shape everything from the name ‘TOBi’ itself to the image you see when interacting, to his general persona, which is business-like but also warm and friendly. TOBi is polite and open, but most of our feedback suggested that our customers didn’t want ‘chit-chat’ when dealing with a bot. What they really wanted was quick, accurate and reliable service, and the ability to connect with a human if they wished to at any point. But if you wanted, you could ask immediately to be handed over to a human advisor, and TOBi would do it instantly.
 
 
TOBi is powered by IBM’s Watson technology which has been making waves around the world for its AI prowess. To what extend is TOBi utilising Watson’s technology and is there scope for more improvements?

You could describe IBM Watson as providing the brain in the solution, with Vodafone providing the knowledge and persona which make TOBi right for our customers. We have partnered with IBM to get things right, and we’re one of the first brands out there to use this sort of next generation AI capability globally. We’re planning to dramatically increase the scope for TOBi’s use in the next twelve months, and we’re also helping IBM to develop the platform further based on the feedback we receive.
 
 
What is the future for TOBi? Where do you see AIs and Chatbots going?

Ultimately, TOBi will go where our customers want him to go. At the moment, he’s limited to text-based conversation, through instant messaging, or on our website or app. But in the near future, TOBi could have a voice, and our customers could be able to speak to him directly, opening up a whole world of possibilities.

For me, there’s no doubt that ‘digital assistants’ will transform our lines – it’s just a matter of when that will happen. In the future, we could all have a digital assistant, or more than one, helping with the transactional tasks in our lives, freeing up time for activities of more value.
 
 
What are the learnings from your experience of working with TOBi that small businesses can take away? Is there a scope for AI and Chatbots to become accessible for SMEs?

The technology which TOBi is built with is accessible to all, and it can be delivered in a way which doesn’t require heavy investment or niche software development skills. To give that point some context: all of the conversational experiences that happen with TOBi have been designed and configured by individuals we recruited from our own contact centres. We realised that the most important part is building a conversation with the customer, and understanding the issue they need resolving. Teaching our team to construct this with the software available was a relatively simple task, because they have so much experience of what customer service means in real terms.
 
 

  • Wendy Bilkey

    How about bringing all overseas call centres back to uk and train all ur staff in customer services, billing and technical issues otherwise soon there will be nobody left to talk to tobi. I hope tobi speaks with an english accent!!