How AI can help solve e-mail overload and expand customer base

With an AI-powered quotation system developed via IMDA’s Open Innovation Platform, a rope supply firm looks forward to a threefold improvement in productivity

Imagine having an AI-powered helper that can read incoming emails and documents from customers, understand their needs and instantly match them with a suitable product from your company's inventory.

Come June, employees at TEHO Ropes can leverage this smart tool to expedite the manual and tedious process of responding to quotation-related queries from local and overseas customers in the maritime, offshore oil and gas and construction industries.

The automated system will use AI tools to read emails and documents, recognise customers' specifications and desired delivery dates and ports, before matching the requests with a suitable product or services from TEHO's inventory database.

"With this system, we'll be able to respond to queries more quickly, and with more accuracy and consistency too," says Mr Guy Blondé, TEHO's senior manager of corporate strategy.

In addition, the AI-powered tool will be able to resolve a crucial pain point the company's Singapore office has been facing: not being able to respond quickly enough to inquiries coming in after working hours.

"It will also be very useful because we have an international business spanning different time zones. If we get an inquiry in the middle of the night from the United States or Europe, the system can do most of the work before our staff arrive in the morning and finalise the reply," adds Mr Blondé.

For the team at TEHO, this means more time can be freed to perform value-added tasks such as sales analysis and building business relationships.

The empowering solution was made possible with IMDA's Open Innovation Platform (OIP), a virtual platform that matches firms and organisations facing difficulties with others that can solve them. After submitting their problem statement to the platform in 2019, TEHO Ropes was quickly connected with Ent-Vision, specialist in AI and other data technologies. It helped TEHO develop a smart system to resolve the labour-intensive quotation process.

A boon for solution provider, too

While the cutting-edge solution will be crucial for TEHO as it grows its business, it has been a game-changer for Ent-Vision, the local start-up that created it.

Specialising in AI and other data technologies, Ent-Vision's clients were mainly from the logistics and supply chain sector until it won TEHO's call for proposals via the OIP.

Ent-Vision co-founder and director Pamela Wu explains: "Start-ups like us find it difficult to get our foot in the door of potential customers. The OIP opens those doors for us. We don't have to cold-call others, make appointments and hope that firms will tell us about their difficulties. We can just go through the OIP innovation calls and apply to those that are a good fit for us.

Launched in 2018, the OIP seeks to accelerate digital innovation by matching real business challenges of problem owners to tech solution providers. For each round of innovation calls, challenges are introduced to address issues faced by an individual organisation or a sector. In the wake of the pandemic, a new category has been added to address nationwide challenges that, once tackled, will allow Singapore to emerge stronger post-Covid.

Since winning the TEHO project, Ent-Vision has fielded calls from other firms in the maritime, and offshore oil and gas industries. "They believe in us and want us to customise solutions for them because we went through the stringent and comprehensive OIP process. After working with TEHO, we are also confident we can do a good job for them," Ms Wu says.

Ent-Vision also made valuable contacts in the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) sector by taking part in related OIP challenges, although the Covid-19 pandemic put a halt to these.

For TEHO, the OIP is a more productive way of finding solutions to problems. "When we have an issue, we usually think about how we can solve it, then look for those answers in the market," says Mr Blondé.

"With the OIP, we can put up a problem statement and get many different perspectives and ideas on how to tackle it, including those that we would never have thought of ourselves. We also get proposals that serve our exact needs. Those are the OIP's two great selling points."

To encourage participants to invent groundbreaking technologies and systems, the OIP has a structured process that covers ideation to commercialisation, as well as a facility for prototyping and other activities. To date, it has organised over 190 challenges, convened more than 10,000 problem solvers and initiated over 60 innovation projects, with many more in the works.

Upcoming: An improved matching process and a virtual sandbox

Both TEHO and Ent-Vision say that they will continue to use the OIP, especially with the new features slated to be rolled out in mid-2021.

A smart discovery engine will analyse problem statements and recommend solvers with the relevant experience to improve the matching process and encourage more companies, from small- and medium-sized enterprises to multinational corporations, to co-create solutions.

Additionally, a virtual sandbox hosted on cloud infrastructure, with access to digital tools, reusable software assets, testbed environments and community partners, will speed up the development cycle of proof-of-concepts from months to weeks.

With these two new features, the OIP is expected to cater to a wider variety of innovation needs, and facilitate hundreds more matches between enterprises and solution providers.

For Ent-Vision, being on OIP's new discovery function could draw more businesses to its offerings. "While each firm has its own procedures and problems, sometimes the underlying issues are similar. Companies in different sectors may have difficulties processing non-standardised documents, for example, and we would be a good recommendation for them," says Ms Wu.

Mr Blondé adds that the virtual sandbox will strengthen the OIP's value. "Most of the time, solutions off the shelf can only do so much," he explains. "If you want a competitive edge, you have to develop your own systems and technologies. Firms can already use the OIP to co-create solutions that can't be found anywhere else in the market, and the virtual sandbox will make it better."

Visit the OIP website to discover connections that can transform your business.

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