A travel buyer and an artificial intelligence expert shared tips on chatbots in a session called “From the Outside Looking In” at the Advantage Conference in Cadiz, Spain, last weekend.

Jose Luis Vilar, chief information officer at technology provider Caravelo, said: “Chatbots are AI assistants that can understand natural conversations, and give intelligent answers. They extract both intent and input. They have been around for ages – the first one was in the 1970s. Alexa and Siri haven’t represented a huge boom, but it was bots for Messenger that showed the potential for this technology.”

Caravelo specialises in airline IT, and has worked with Singapore Airlines on its chatbot for pre-departure reminders, and told the audience the bot was twice as effective as email reminders. Vilar urged delegates to “be open to be surprised” when planning to launch a chat bot.

Airline client Scoot, meanwhile, offers two bots: Marvie (short for “Most Awesome and Resourceful Virtual Intern Ever”) and an internal chatbot that offers “staff travel on steroids”. Vilar said: “Expect the unexpected, because it’s only with real usage that comes real learning and the purpose of it. You might be pre-judging, or thinking the most valuable feature will be X or Y, or users will not buy a flight with it, but the reality will tell you the way.”

He also encourage people to start small. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to build it from scratch. There are DIY solutions out there with pre-trained skills that you can use and take of advantage of. Your first chatbot release won’t last, so don’t be afraid of getting it wrong from the start. Also don’t hesitate to use other chat bots to adjust to digital transformation.”

In terms of challenges, he warned that when bringing AI in scale to your organisation, it will always be complex because “many of your departments will have a say”.

Meanwhile, Vilar emphasised AI was not a fad: “Savvy travellers are not looking away from this technology, and in the near future it will be an expectation; it’s not the Christmas toy, it will be demanded.”

He also said bots, in general, are good at performing repetitive tasks, and so could help staff morale. “As a manager, I can use bots to free up my team from boring, repetitive tasks, so we can let them perform at a higher level. That way I can also retain the best talent.”

He concluded: “Chat is the new email, the new web and the new app. It’s a much more powerful way to interact with your consumers.”

Plug and play
Meanwhile, Michael McSperrin, global head of facilities and support services at Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS), talked about his company’s chat bot journey so far.

“When we build a bot, we give it a name: Issac is our interviewing scheduling bot. We work with large consultancy firms. On average, they schedule 1,000 interviews a month. That’s 1,000 candidates that need to be contacted, plus 1,000 hiring managers. If you did that manually, that would take a lot of time. So Issac matches availabilities and sends out invites, and books the room.

“That’s worked well for us, there’s a faster turnaround to get candidates in, and it’s a smoother experience as candidates don’t have to wait for a phone call from a recruiter asking when they’re available.”

Travis is another app, and was built by McSperrin himself, and is short for “Travel is simple”. McSperrin said the idea followed a conversation with his CTO, and he used a Microsoft tool called Q&A Maker, which comes with the Office 365 package, and it makes the travel programme and policy interactive.

“This was then plugged into Skype and SharePoint, and staff at AMS can ask questions like ‘how do I book travel?’, ‘how do I log in?’, ‘how do I reset my password’,” he told delegates. “It saves me and my team from answering the repetitive questions that we get it all the time.”

McSperrin admitted Travis is unable to have a long conversation with a user, but said it will go through the database, and find the closest match to what the user is suggesting. “If it doesn’t find the right match, it will say ‘sorry I don’t have the answer, so please contact such and such a person, and they’ll be able to help you’,” he added. “We also constantly review the chatbot, and if we see a particular question is being asked a lot, we add it in. It takes 60 seconds. It’s very straightforward.”


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