Our Contact Centre receives on average 17,000 calls and 3,850 emails per month. This type of contact is extremely expensive to support and service and reducing the volume of contacts via these channels was one of the key objectives behind developing our online offer.
Our digital programme aims to make it as easy as possible for residents and other users to find what they need through online Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG), which in turn makes it easier for those who have more complex needs or who can’t use online services to get through to the Contact Centre by phone.
For the past few years we have provided a Contact Centre operated Livechat service for users who are online but need help, but this was only available when customer service agents were available and there was no provision outside office hours. We knew there was considerable unmet demand for online help, so we explored the options for using technology to handle as many contacts from citizens as possible.
As a result, we have replaced the previous Livechat service with a conversational Artificial Intelligence solution, or chatbot, called Ami, that will support people whilst they are using the website 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, meaning responsive support will be available outside of office hours.
A learning process
Ami learns from information available on the website and continues to learn, updating her knowledge automatically, developing an understanding of the needs of service users from her engagements with real users.
Ami uses cutting edge technology to make her communication skills as close to that of a human agent as possible. She is learning the sorts of words and phrases people in Stockport use, so she can provide a friendly and personal customer experience. Ami gains experience through learning so her capabilities will improve with time.
Ami can prioritise the importance and urgency of customer requests and will transfer customers to the relevant customer service agents if she can’t answer the query, or if agents need to be involved in the conversation.
To assist the learning process Ami has been initially focussed on the areas that generate most demand in the Contact Centre: Council Tax, Bins and Recycling and Parking, Roads and Travel. Ami went live on these areas in April, but it was anticipated she would not become fully effective until she had dealt with 10,000 chats, which we expect to reach in September.
As well as extending the hours when online support is available, Ami offers several other improvements to our online services:
- there are no limits on how many chats Ami can handle at one time, so citizens are no longer having to wait for their queries to be answered
- Ami helps us learn about customer journeys for each service – any gaps in her learning indicate there’s a need for us to revisit the user journey and identify what improvements we can make
- Ami directs users to the correct forms on our website, increasing customer self-service and improving user experience
- Ami also feeds into our Digital Inclusion offer – we are supporting people to gain basic digital skills and Ami can help residents with limited online experience to access digital services for themselves
Can we see any difference yet?
Ami originally starting operating Monday to Friday from 9am to 4pm with little Contact Centre agent support. We have now moved to operating Ami 24/7 and have added more agents to support our more complex chats taken during normal office hours.
Since Ami was introduced in April the feedback from users has become increasingly positive as Ami has learnt more information from the website and gained a better knowledge of customer needs. We are receiving lots of positive feedback from customers, such as:
“Excellent and prompt, thank you!”
“Faster than searching yourself.”
“Fantastic support with the promise of a call back to resolve my issue.”
We anticipate that as Ami becomes more widely used, and now that there are more trained agents to deal with complex enquiries, the 5-Star customer satisfaction ratings will continue to increase.
Ami is proving an invaluable ‘team member’.
Ami is now resolving a large number of customer enquiries that previously would have required a telephone call, which leaves more availability for us to deal with more complex enquiries and vulnerable customers.
Ami also enables customers to contact the council 24 hours a day during the week and therefore reduces demand to the Contact Centre and the volume of emails which we have to respond to manually. By using Ami, customers can have their enquiries resolved immediately, when they choose to contact the council, and are not restricted by our opening times.
Since Ami has been introduced she has achieved a 35% resolution rate of chats that didn’t require any human intervention. A further 24% generated an email into the Contact Centre teams due to the complexity of the chat or an agent not being available at the time. Just 19% of chats needed to be routed to an agent. (The remainder dropped out of the conversation.)
Ami is already starting to save money by reducing the cost to serve, compared to other communication methods, such as telephone call, email or live web chat. The cost of Ami answering a request is £0.19 in comparison to an estimated £4.00 for a phone call and £3.37 for an email. Given that we receive thousands of requests each week, this has the potential to make huge savings.
During the learning and testing period Ami has been ‘soft launched’, with internal Comms only to Members and staff. Once we are certain this new service is working well, Ami will become a part of our regular ‘We’re online and ready when you are’ resident-focussed Comms messages, reinforcing awareness of our online offer and the message that our online IAG and forms are the easiest and quickest way to access many council services.
Business Rates and some additional environment services have already been added to Ami’s learning. More areas of the website will be introduced over the next two to three months, starting with licensing towards the end of August.
We will continue to monitor:
- numbers of telephone calls and emails to the contact centre and hope to see these reduce as self-serve increases
- the use of Ami and the nature of the queries so that we can evaluate web content and whether the Comms needs to target specific areas
- visits to the Council website and the prioritised areas
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