Air NZ chatbot still in beta, but success rate climbing

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Air New Zealand’s move into AI (artificial intelligence) for customer service delivery appears to be paying off, with its chatbot Oscar now handling over 1000 queries on a busy day.

The airline’s digital team developed the chatbot over a few weeks and launched it in beta in February this year. At the time Air New Zealand Chief Digital Officer Avi Golan said it was “getting Oscar out fast and in the early-development stages so that we can build and co-create with our customers.”

On its first day live the chatbot had a 7% success rate when answering customer queries and now – almost nine months later – it has a 67% success rate. Air New Zealand spokesperson Brigitte Ransom says the chatbot primarily deals with customers looking for quick answers on the day of travel and for booking flights.

“In the past 90-days Oscar has had around 40,000 conversations. He typically receives 300-350 queries per day and on a busy day, he’ll receive more than 1,000. Oscar’s peak demand times mirror those of our call centre,” she says.

As for customers, Ms Ransom says they have in general responded positively.

“Oscar engages in some great conversations – and customers are typically polite with him, thanking him and greeting him with “Hello” as they would a real person. When Oscar is able to quickly and efficiently answer a complex question, they’re delighted.”

The airline has extended the chatbot’s functionality, and it was recently launched within the Air New Zealand mobile app. “Oscar is still a bot in training, but we’re very happy with his progress so far,” Ms Ransom says.

AI solutions such as chatbots are set to become more ubiquitous customer service tools in companies and government departments. This week Microsoft, at its annual conference Ignite for 25,000 business, announced it had extended its enterprise solutions to include greater AI capability for its customers. “The first solution includes an intelligent virtual agent for customer care, an intelligent assistant for customer service staff and conversation management tools, all powered by Microsoft AI. Australian Government Department of Human Services, HP Inc., Macy’s and Microsoft are already using this technology to improve overall customer satisfaction and handle more requests, in a shorter amount of time.”

Interacting with Oscar

Chatbots work through a combination of machine learning models and tools that a developer uses to match a query with an answer. Machine learning requires both algorithms and large data sets, so a chatbot has to be fed lots of information before it can be effective (a good explanation about how chatbots work can be found here).

In the case of Air New Zealand, it’s likely to have begun to develop its chatbot using logs of customer conversations, but it wasn’t until the chatbot was launched that it could truly “learn” the multiple ways in which a customer can frame a query, and then “know” how to ask the right questions back to ensure it can deliver the best response. Hence why the airline launched it in beta and why its success rate was only 7% on day one, but is now 67% nine months later.

Air New Zealand has also partnered with Soul Machines to demonstrated a “human powered by artificial intelligence” in Los Angeles recently. In a press release it says there are no current plans to deploy this technology on a permanent basis.

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