Visit the ‘Contact Us’ page on the AustralianSuper website between 10am and 6pm, and you may find yourself soon exchanging pleasantries with ‘Ash’, the fund’s first virtual team member.

Short for ‘AustralianSuper HelpBot’, Ash uses artificial intelligence to respond to a range of general enquiries made through the site’s live chat and its presence is helping the fund provide a more personalised service experience.

Since its launch on January 23, ASH has engaged in close to 6,000 chats with customers with user satisfaction tracking as high as 75%.

Kristen Surridge, Service Delivery Vendor Manager for AustralianSuper, tells us about Ash’s journey to date and what’s ahead.

A win-win situation

The fund introduced a live chat facility on its website just over three years ago. Contact centre agents in Melbourne and Perth manage the interactions, but if all agents are engaged, the option is automatically not offered.

“Click to chat was quickly embraced by members”, Surridge says, “but a large percentage of agents’ time was being spent on what were essentially quite simple queries.”

“Because we have a finite number of agents, we needed a way to maintain chat volumes, while creating more opportunity for agents to assist with complex issues and we felt a help bot could help us achieve both objectives”.

Agile development in action

Work on Ash commenced officially in November last year. Developed with agile methodology, it went live a matter of weeks later. Surridge notes the agile approach was ideal for the project.

“No-one expected Ash to be perfect for day one”, she confirms, “but we knew experience would be a great teacher; that we could start with something basic, then constantly update it.”

When asked a question, Ash searches its knowledge base for a match. If it finds one that meets a threshold confidence level, it returns the corresponding answer. Drawn mostly from the website’s FAQs section, the knowledge base initially comprised roughly 200 question and answer pairings.

“During the testing and early post-launch phases, the project team met daily to review transcripts of Ash’s conversations”, Surridge says. Questions were added, its vocabulary was expanded, and the search algorithm was fine tuned. Today, that knowledge base stands at almost 500 questions and answers.”

Takes two to tango

One aspect of Ash that hasn’t changed is supervision: every interaction is monitored in real time by a contact centre agent. If Ash appears to be struggling, or a customer needs assistance, the agent steps in and picks up the conversation.

At other times, Ash will initiate a handover. It can’t answer complex or multi-barrelled questions, for example, nor access specific information about a member’s account. When it encounters these scenarios, Ash immediately involves an agent.

This collaboration is affectionately known as ‘the agent and bot tango’—and the affection is genuine. Surridge notes that the ability of Ash to triage enquiries in this way is genuinely appreciated by agents, who now regard the bot as part of their contact centre team.

A learning experience

While some organisations portray their help bots as human-like, AustralianSuper has taken the opposite approach. The avatar for Ash is a stylised robot face adorned with a temporary ‘L’ plate.

“It’s about managing expectations”, Surridge says, “we want people to recognise that ASH is still learning, as this hopefully encourages a little more patience on their behalf.”

Based on user satisfaction scores, the approach is working. Although understandably less than the typical 90%+ rating that contact centre agents receive, Ash’s scores are still well above average.

Preparing for Ash 2.0

As clever as Ash is, it still doesn’t chat in the true sense of the word. Every question addressed to it must be asked from scratch, because Ash currently has no concept of context.

The next iteration, however, does. Utilising Google Dialogue Flow and currently undergoing testing, Ash Phase 2 will have the ability to continue a conversation and retain context from previous related questions.

According to Surridge, contact centre agents involved in the testing are extremely excited by what they’re seeing. “The feedback to date is that there’s no comparison between the existing and forthcoming version of Ash”, she says, “the agents can’t wait for it go live”.