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17 Mar 2011

The Watson gift for the customer care market.

The timing for Watson could not be better. It is a nice anniversary’s gift IBM has given itself for the 100 years of its existence. But also a very nice gift for the customer care market. Why so?

Perhaps I shall first recall the essentials of Watson. Watson is the new computer brain from IBM which can answer questions on different topics, varying from science, culture, history up to economics or even the last pop music events and their related “chit chats”. The questions to Watson are formulated in natural language. Just like human beings do. And Watson formulates the answer to each question also in natural language. Sometimes Watson may say, it does not know any answer.
Furthermore, Watson has been trained to play in competition against human beings on the US television quiz show Jeopardy. Jeopardy is the number one quiz show in North America. The best Jeopardy players are respected for their encyclopedic knowledge. Watson being able to understand a question and to give the correct answer to the formulated question, makes it somewhat human.

And IBM wanted to set a mile stone. Just like it did in 1997 with DeepBlue, the chess computer who won against the world champion chess player, Garri Kasparow. IBM brought Watson between the 14th and the 16th  of February 2011  in competition against the best human Jeopardy players ever, Brat Rutter and Ken Jennings . And Watson did win. Winning twice as much money as the best of the two human beings. A new milestone, for IBM. For the computer science. For the definition of human intelligence.

So what technology is behind Watson? It is called DeepQA for Deep Question and Answer. At a very high level, DeepQA analyses natural language sentence and extracts information it contains. For example from the sentence “Albert Einstein, born on the 14th of March 1879” it can fill its database of birthdates with the entry Albert Einstein and the corresponding date. It can also go further and extract interesting knowledge across sentence boundaries that are obviously in the same context. In the following example Watson makes use of temporal calculation, geographical relationships and paraphrasing statistics to relate Vasco da Gama stated in the sentence “on the 27th of May 1498, Vasco da Gama landed in Kappad Beach” together with the explorer mentioned in the question  “In may 1898 Portugal celebrated the 400th anniversary of this explorer’s arrival in India”.

Without going into the details of the technology behind, this allows for 2 interesting activities.
  • The first one is data mining: Watson analyses text offered to it, categorises this knowledge and collects  it into tables, knowledge bases and lists of semantically annotated sentences.
  • The second one is answering a question: Watson extracts the context from a question and evaluates the best possible fit between the question and Watson’s accumulated knowledge. 
So like a human being? Yes if we reduce a human being’s capacity to access its knowledge using simple calculation. The complex reasoning of the human being, deduction and induction capabilities or reasoning per analogy is still to be modeled by a computer.

But Watson is good enough to help human beings in decision making: Watson can extract from a huge database the relevant piece of information to support the decision process of human beings, for example on illness diagnosis.

And why is the showing of Watson good for the customer care market?

The essence of customer care is to answer questions. And if Watson can answer open questions on a very wide variety of themes, it certainly can be very efficient in answering customer care questions. More, Watson does it automatically.

And automation brings in quality: answer quality, process quality.
  • Automation brings control: you know exactly what your automated service delivers.
  • Automation brings repeatability. Same question same answer. As long as it is not changed or improved.
  • Automation allows to work on increase of quality: one can teach, fine tune an automated system.
And as Watson shows it, with a very high quality!

Just as DeepBlue validated the market for automated chess players, DeepQA will validate the market for virtual assistants. Good news for a market (that of automating customer care) which until now took its time to mature.

14 Mar 2011

Customer Service ... or ... Service for the customer ?

There is customer service - and there is service for the customer, as some people say.
Ok, but what about the following experience. Does that fall into the category “service for the customer”?
I booked a flight online. When finished, I was pleased to immediately receive the booking confirmation per email. I went rapidly through and noticed something went wrong. Something not important for the flight itself, something more of an administrative issue relevant to taxes. Something that if not done well, may end up next year in a long mail exchange. The billing address was not complete. Probably the software on the web had cut long entries in the form. Annoying but it is something that can be solved rapidly. So I wanted to reply to the incoming mail and ask the airline to replace the billing address with the one the tax authority would accept.

Click on reply, write something like, “with regard to attached booking Nr xyz, please replace the billing address with the next address. Thank you. Why my best regards”. At most 2 minutes work. It ended up with more than 20 minutes of stress, tension, call waiting and real Euro costs.

Why? Because first of all the mail I received was a no-reply mail. It did not contain any contact information, no link to customer service, no phone number. But plenty of links to renting cars, hotel booking and all the stuff you can imagine finding at the end of an airline mail. Only the attachment to the mail  contained a  14 cent per minute phone number to call. I looked again … no way to contact the airline company per mail.

So I called the 14 cent a minute phone number, landed in a waiting queue and after 15 minutes got an agent who needed some context information like the booking number and my name. Just say “Dugast”, a French name to a German person on the phone and you are good for 20 seconds of spelling. And eventually we got to the reason of my call, to correct the billing address. But he did not want to go for that, so we went for a completely new billing address, starting from scratch with plenty of “Alpha Tango, yes I got it .. sorry … would you  mind repeating please …”. 

A 20 minute phone call in total with 15 minutes in the waiting line. Their buggy software cost me 2,80 €! Their buggy software cost me 20 minutes of my time. Their buggy software cost me unneeded negative stress!

And  … at the end, no apologies! I can go for no apologies from an automatic system. But from an agent who even noted the form filling system on the web was doing too much in cutting long entries, I would expect some basic natural human behavior. Why do I need personal assistance if it is no more human than speaking with a machine? And on top if the conversation with the agent is much more complex than using automatic written assistance.

A few days later, I went on the web site to look for online check-in. This is where I noted that this airline company does in fact allow for written communication. Yes they do. With a web form. As always hidden behind some small button. But I was surprised. How could I have overlooked this button when I wanted to change the billing address?

The answer is very simple: I was on the email channel. I was reading an email when I saw the problem. I was not on the web. I naturally wanted to reply to the mail … or to look within the mail for some communication means. How can I imagine more communication capabilities on the web (which is per definition not communicative) as within a communication channel like email? So they write me an email, they communicate with me, but only one way … They do not allow me to use the channel they opened themselves. “Please do not come back to us, we do not want to know what problems or questions you may have.” This is the message they are sending implicitly.

How could they have done better? From a customer´s point of view, it is very simple: They could have kept alive the communication channel they opened themselves. That is: to allow for a mail answer when they are sending mails.

If the customer service is afraid of opening a communication channel with no constraints, than the next best solution would have been to display in the mail a link to the web form. As simple as that. Nothing more. The communication is established and kept with no channel disruption. That´s the way you provide service for the customer – instead of customer service.