Government-owned Northern Ireland Water is the sole provider of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland on a daily basis delivering 570 million litres of water to 850,000 homes and businesses whilst treating 340 million litres of wastewater back to the natural environment every day. It’s also one of Northern Ireland’s largest employers, with 1,300 staff operating assets valued at around £3bn.
Ensuring seamless water supply to so many residents is challenging enough, but if things go wrong NI Water needs to respond quickly and solve problems fast. Prior to 2019, the main point of contact was by phone to the company’s customer service team, but that meant the team were mired in responding to basic customer queries and unable to focus on more complex tasks. Research uncovered that, for most people, the first point of contact was the company’s website, so it made sense to try and keep customers in that environment as they worked through their issues.
NI Water’s partner, IPI, approached CM.com for help in creating an AI-powered chatbot for the NI Water website and worked hand-in-hand with them to design, create and implement the ‘Ask NI’ solution. Early work focused on creating a bank of content for the chatbot to draw from in order to provide intelligent, conversational responses to frequently asked questions. From there, machine learning was implemented to predict the kind of information users were looking for from typed enquiries, while Natural Language Processing (NLP) was implemented to understand customer intent and build dialogue for the most commonly required pieces of information. These responses include providing video and additional resources wherever possible to enhance the customer experience. If the chatbot is unable to respond to a request for any reason, it directs the customer to a member of the NI Water customer service team.
“Through our conversational AI platform and by working in collaboration with IPI, we have disrupted and enhanced the customer experience for NI Water’s customers and driven efficiencies throughout the wider organisation. We are extremely happy with the results and look forward to working closely with IPI in the coming months to move NI Water into their next phase of digital transformation.” Lauren James, Business Development Consultant at CM.com
Once the dialogue work was complete, CM.com worked with NI Water and IPI to build the look and feel of Ask NI. Both male and female chatbots are used, decided at random across the site, with avatars on the homepage to direct customers to find answers via the chatbot, rather than encouraging them to call.
For launch, NI Water publicised the new chatbot on its bills and rebranded envelopes, using avatar images to drive awareness of Ask NI and highlighting its ease of use.
Ask NI has been an enormous success story. From day one of launch, the chatbot was able to answer 70% of customer's questions, surpassing the benchmark of 60%. Fast forward two years, the bot now answers 93% of customer questions, handling 2500-3000 customer interactions per month.
“The chatbot provides quick and easy access to information and improves our customers’ experience with our brand. IPI has made this transition easy for us. Its team of dedicated consultants worked collaboratively with our team, finding creative solutions to problems and making sure that the chatbot both reflected our brand and met the needs of our customers. We are delighted with the results to date and are excited about continuing our digital transformation journey with IPI.” Orla McGivern, Customer Experience Manager at NI Water
Always seeking improvement, CM.com designed the chatbot to use AI and machine learning to constantly analyse and improve its responses and follow-up questions in order to better understand customer intent and improve accuracy. In addition, the backend system was designed to enable NI Water to gather crucial behavioural data relating to the way its customers use its website and contact centre, using comprehensive dashboards to allow them to better understand the customer journey.
As well as supporting ongoing maintenance, future plans with IPI include further development to enhance the natural feel of the chatbot.
“As a utility company, we know our customers sometimes need information quickly, so don’t want to be on hold with a call centre or have to search through pages of information for the answers they need. The chatbot solves this, providing quick and easy access to information and improving our customers’ experience with our brand. IPI has made this transition easy for us. Its team of dedicated consultants worked collaboratively with our team, finding creative solutions to problems and making sure that the chatbot both reflected our brand and met the needs of our customers. We are delighted with the results to date and are excited about continuing our digital transformation journey with IPI.” Orla McGivern, Customer Experience Manager at NI Water
With the chatbot running smoothly, at the tail end of 2020 NI Water turned its attention to internal communication and, specifically, how its customer service agents handle queries. There was an existing solution that allowed the team to amend customer service scripts, but they found it cumbersome and updates took as much as three months to process. Given the success of the customer-facing chatbot, it made sense for CM.com and IPI to create a tool that could be used to quickly and efficiently update scripts and help agents find information fast.
IPI used CM.com’s chatbot platform to create a ‘tile’ interface that allowed customer service agents to identify common customer topics and quickly bring up the necessary script in order to move the call forward. After a rigorous two-week testing period, the chatbot was pushed live to NI Water’s entire customer service team.
Since go-live, the system has had 2,500-3,000 interactions per week by agents, receiving positive feedback as the team find it more user friendly with fewer clicks to get to the information they need than the previous solution. In addition, account handling time has been reduced by 11 seconds per call.
With the new system, script updates take as little as 20 minutes and NI Water can easily see which scripts are being used the most and where agents most commonly stop. All valuable information to continue to improve the solution going forward.
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