A lot has been made of digital transformation, and how many businesses are using self-serve web-based applications to engage with their customers, employees and other stakeholders to be able to enhance and in some cases reinvent the customer experience often with both a stickier customer journey and lower service costs. Uber and AirBnB are often held up as the poster-boys but there are many businesses who are not ‘digital native’ companies emulating in their own way.
As with so many buzzphrases, there is usually a less-sexy way of saying the same thing which has been around for a long-time. In the field of customer interaction, most people will think of digital transformation as the growth in chatbots and social media-enabled communication. However I would argue that the main bastion of change has to be directed at FAQs.
Sexy or not, FAQs used to be the only way to read about self-help and avoid calling a contact center. They are frequently cited as inherently flawed as these blogs from the UK Government and eloquently in this technical writers blog. Yet if you stop and think, a well-structured FAQ if it is searchable with natural language is a critical asset as it is really the same thing as a chatbot, but perhaps without the charm or manners.
In a more measured manner, really FAQs are part of a spectrum of communication channels (one-way and two) where customers can solve problems. They sit alongside forums, social media, chatbots, chat, phone and email (see diagram below).
Also surveys and reviews can trigger interactions depending on the content. The current state of most organisations is that all these elements are separate silos, and whilst the customer experience team are trying hard to break these silos down, there are few who would see FAQs as on the same spectrum as chatbots and forums. Also people’s expectations of FAQs are to see a laundry list of requests which is not how they desire to interact. Imagine though if you could write your query in any way you wanted into a search bar and it would retrieve the correct response. Imagine also that the search was entirely consistent across all channels. Is this just a fantasy?
Machine learning for text is capable to classify interactions to be able to automate responses to natural language. However as we see with chatbot fails, it is hard to get this right due to the complexity and variability of human dialogue and chatbot containment rates are still below where their proprietors would want them to be. Further complexity is that human dialogue varies immensely across the channels: People don’t write in emails how they use chat which is different again to forums, nor how they speak or write a complaint, or even fill in a survey. By way of an example, a study at an airline found that the average topic in a chat was just over one whereas in a call it was nearer to two and in a complaint it was two and a half. People use different channels for different things, and also use different channels for the same thing in different ways. If the company is trying to classify aka tag or ‘label’ each interaction, then it will very easily fall into the trap of having different categories or tags for different channels, not by design but because it is hard to normalise them whatever technology you’re using. This phenomenon doesn’t really have a formal name but it is rife and disruptive. The ideal is some kind of ‘homogenization’ of the tags i.e. so that “late shipping” can be the same concept whatever channel. This then allows the guardians of the customer journey to understand what’s going wrong (and right), get a global view, and also understand if customers are calling back about the same thing on a different channel because they didn’t get it resolved. This also means that the customer journey and knowledge base can be fixed once for each breach, in the knowledge that it is fixing things across the board.
Machine learning can help this harmonization process although it is fraught with challenges, not least because the models for each tag need to be built especially for each channel, for example the “late shipping” tag for chat will need to be a different model to the “late shipping” tag for email or complaint. What data scientists know is that the process of building the machine learning models is intense: New York Times estimated that up to 80% of a data scientist’s time is spent “data wrangling”. CrowdFlower estimates “data preparation” at 80%. Further, assumptions and errors are an inevitable part of the process where human judgement and skill is required. More than this, 76% of data scientists view data preparation as the least enjoyable part of their work. Furthermore someone needs to build a training set for the models and that typically involves a human somewhere labelling the various interactions into topics and a topology that can drive the correct response. This is laborious in a linear fashion.
There are a number of different approaches to this problem. One company addressing this problem in a novel way is Warwick Analytics which is a spin-out from The University of Warwick. It has developed a proprietary technology called ‘Optimized Learning’ which puts a ‘human-in-the-loop’ in a very effective way: What this means is that the technology classifies the customer interactions in a meaningful way but when its certainty is low, it asks for assistance for a human to classify or ‘label’ the interactions which provide the most information back to training the models. Therefore it is theoretically and practically guaranteed to involve the minimum human interaction to maximise the performance of the models and hence the accuracy. The human trainer can be offline, as well as involving the customer in certain circumstances. The company has worked with many enterprises to improve chatbots, automate contact centers, complaints handling and improve the quality of self-service and FAQs.
So in conclusion, FAQs are an old-fashioned and much discredited digital experience, yet in the new world of digital transformation and harmonization, they can come back to center stage thanks to some clever technology and the human-in-the-loop.