Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence: The Automation of Self-Care

Tools for enabling increased client autonomy have been undergoing a continuous process of enhancement and automation. Each day, we’re seeing an increasing number of innovations, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence designed for use in customer relations. What are the perceived benefits for the client? Up to what point should customer relations be entrusted to algorithms?
Philippe Diaz
Follow-up on the Client Strategy Conference with Philippe Dias, Manager of Digital Marketing and Innovation at Natixis Interépargne.
For several years now, Thomas, an interactive virtual assistant, has embodied Natixis Interépargne across all platforms for all types of end-users.
On the heels of the Client Strategy Conference, we wanted to ask Digital Marketing and Innovation Manager Philippe Dias a few questions regarding the reasons for such a development and the results that have been observed.

In your opinion, how does a more human interactive digital relationship facilitate contact with clients?

For us, the digital transformation has meant a more effective customer relationship, whose time has come. It’s the care taken in achieving just the right blend of humanity, emotion and empathy. A more human digital relationship implies a mixture of sensitivity and efficiency with the goal of fully understanding the expectations of the client.
Client contact is facilitated because digital technology allows us to be proactive, to offer a high-quality presence and increased availability, and to provide a considerable amount of information.

What were the various stages in the development of Thomas, the Natixis chatbot?

In 2009, he played the role of facilitator, an educator acting as a host, providing information through interactive videos.
In 2015, he grew and matured into a veritable interactive virtual agent. He evolved from a mere host into a full-fledged actor. He guides, supports and interacts with the user. He’s available any time of day or night.

What are the perceived benefits for the client?

Today, Thomas is viewed as a 24/7 omnichannel virtual agent.
We made the technological decision to provide one or more potential responses to satisfy users’ immediate needs when consulting Thomas.
If he doesn’t know how to respond, rather than being stubborn and insistent, Thomas redirects the user to the appropriate live advisor. The idea is to provide a real-time solution, without fail.

How can a chatbot maintain a link with the client?

Through empathy, consistency and the quality of its presence, a chatbot has a true power of attraction. It has to really be there, across all channels. Our goal is a seamless presence. Rather than simply answering a question, a chatbot must respond to a given situation, through any channel and at any time.

What’s the secret to a virtual agent finding its place within a multichannel support system?

It will play a strong role as long as its availability is apparent and the quality of its responses establishes credibility. Thomas has a high rate of comprehension, on the order of 75 to 85 percent.
He knows how to “find his place” in the client relationship. If he doesn’t have the necessary information, he knows exactly how and to whom the user should be redirected, whether via chat or telephone.

How does the virtual assistant interface with Natixis’ information system?

Thomas “lives” on two levels of interface.
First, there’s a light interface with general responses for the general public.
Second, there’s a user interface in the user’s own client space for more personalized responses. This is a more finely tuned interface.
For example, Thomas knows what type of financial product the client uses and therefore can provide relevant, timely responses.
This is made possible by our knowledge bases, which are organized on two levels, one open and the other, secure. The base that is accessed depends on the originating interface.
Thomas in the public space or Thomas in the private space determines which knowledge base to consult.
We want to provide guidance and support—not to do everything for the client. Our goal is something more along the lines of empowerment, with the idea of helping the user take ownership and control of his or her personal space.

What’s the added value of a virtual assistant with regard to forums and FAQs, however dynamic and interactive they may be?

First and foremost, its friendliness.
Followed by its capacity to mimic human behavior.
Thomas, as he is, isn’t particularly human in any strict sense of the word. We didn’t want that. We prefer to avoid any judgements or reactions that are overly focused on that aspect. His “incarnation” provides a certain distance, while still enabling him to engage the user. We’ve found just the right balance between his quasi-human persona and his robot nature.
The added value of a virtual assistant is also the algorithm operating behind it, an “engine” that endows it with a strong capacity for comprehension.

To what do you attribute Thomas being named Best Virtual Agent of 2016?

That was a nice surprise! It was especially gratifying to us that a jury made up of students—who are not at all our target users—understood and identified Thomas’ qualities, his virtues and the fact that he fulfills his customer-oriented duties with alacrity.
It’s very flattering to receive that kind of recognition.

What does Natixis see as the next step for Thomas?

We’re pursuing two principle lines of development.
 –          First, to take the client relationship one step further. To be present everywhere our clients are, which means introducing him in the social media. For us, this development is the next logical step, considering the rapport that’s increasingly built with clients through these networks. Business practices are evolving, and we’d like to incorporate Thomas in them, enabling clients to interact with the brand wherever necessary.
Thomas must become a social media chatbot.
–          Second, to provide Thomas with an even stronger conversational dimension. To go beyond the 85 percent comprehension rate. To use continuously evolving technologies in relation to the semantic aspects to approximate an interaction that’s more and more human.
Thomas will have self-learning capabilities, giving him increased autonomy. Continuous learning for enhanced performance and adaptability.
Thomas is becoming increasingly independent, thanks to these developments. He will depend less and less on third-party intervention to achieve greater “mental alertness.”

Do you believe that, in the near future, all customer service will be automated through the use of chatbots?

Not at all.
Our primary idea is to provide support and guidance. We believe more in enhanced intelligence than artificial intelligence.
We think it should be in the sense of self-care with the client, certainly automated, but with the idea of preserving a place for the human component, its finesse and its suppleness, providing a solution that extends and improves it.
With regard to the internal needs of the company, with the help of a virtual assistant, collaborators and advisors will have the opportunity to focus on their own skills. The chatbot must permit them to appropriate technologies that will guarantee their success.
In that regard, Thomas wouldn’t be Thomas without all the advisors who have enabled him to be relevant and effective. Thanks to him, collaborators have more time to develop new expertise and know-how.
That’s why we are decidedly in favor of enhancing, not replacing.
Thomas is becoming a full-fledged secretary to the advisors, an internal chatbot who helps them in the performance of their duties.
This angle, this concept, known as “symmetry of attention,” seems very promising to us. It’s all about getting as close as possible to the client experience with the advisor’s professional culture.

Thank you, Philippe, for helping us learn a little more about Thomas, who’s clearly not ready to stop his chatbot evolution anytime soon.