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How AI is changing the delivery of customer care

Businesses and individuals can stay relevant by leveraging IBM's AI technology-powered solutions


Covid-19 has grabbed the world’s attention and led to a rapid revolution in healthcare services in most countries, while fostering a quiet evolution in customer services in most companies. Healthcare facilities had to convert huge halls into makeshift hospitals, and companies had to beef up their virtual services to connect with suppliers, staff, channel partners and customers.

A change of this scale has not happened since the internet turned print professionals into online publishers. This time, the much shorter tech evolution pivots around artificial intelligence (AI). 

Global research and advisory firm Gartner Inc defines AI as applying advanced analysis and logic-based techniques, including machine learning, to interpret events, support and automate decisions, and take action. Meanwhile, management consultancy McKinsey & Company defines AI as the ability of a machine to perform cognitive functions associated with human minds, such as perceiving, reasoning, learning and problem-solving.

Whichever of the two you prefer, AI has the potential to add up to US$16 trillion to the global economy by 2030. It has been estimated that in 2019, AI adoption was at 34 per cent, dramatically higher than most others have predicted. 

It is improving customer experience and business performance across various fields in the Asia-Pacific region — from finance to retail to insurance. Specifically, the adoption of AI-powered chatbots or virtual assistants infused with natural language processing (NLP) capabilities is driving these improvements. 

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One example is Hang Seng Bank in Hong Kong, which enhanced its customer care services with “HARO”, a chatbot that  addresses customer inquiries about retail banking services in three languages, including colloquial Cantonese expressions. By complementing it with NLP capabilities, the bank provides omnichannel customer service that is relevant, responsive, and round-the-clock.

According to a recent IBM survey, firms  exploring AI, regardless of their country of origin, are evenly split — 48 per cent plan to use it for specific project-based work and 46 per cent plan to deploy it across the business. Among companies currently deploying AI, 40 per cent are developing proof of concepts for specific AI-based or AI-assisted projects, while 40 per cent are using pre-built AI apps such as chatbots.

“AI can improve the overall employee experience, reduce operating costs, and increase the accuracy and quality of HR services,” says a  human resource consultant. “It can predict employee flight risk and prescribe actions for managers to engage employees. By analysing an employee’s experience, skills and strengths, AI technology can advise on career paths and help companies determine when it is safe to send staff back to the workplace, in addition to related issues such as space allocation and facilities management.”

German multinational conglomerate company Siemens, for example, integrated its virtual assistant, “CARL”, on its human resource (HR) landing page, enabling employees to quickly find information, applications and documents from any device or location. CARL has been rolled out in Singapore and India, giving HR staff more time to focus on creating employee-centric content that addresses real-life demands and drives value in the organisation. 

AI Singapore 100E

The best way to tackle the AI tech is to partner with technology companies with specific expertise in AI. In October 2017, AISG announced its 100 Experiments (100E) flagship programme to co-create AI solutions with companies. Under this programme, companies propose complex AI problem statements to AISG, which then matches them with AI researchers or AISG's AI engineering teams to build AI solutions within nine to 18 months. So far, 14 AI projects have been completed, with over 40 projects in progress and more than 270 projects in the pipeline.

"AISG will provide 1:1 funding of up to $250,000 per 100E project for the principal investigators from Singapore’s autonomous universities and A*STAR research institutes to work on the organisation’s problem statement," says Mr Laurence Liew, AISG’s director for AI Innovation. 

"The organisation must match the funding amount through in-kind (AI/engineering/IT/domain manpower) and cash contributions. Under the Covid-19 initiative, the cash contribution from local companies is reduced to 10 per cent."

Under this initiative, IBM collaborated with AISG to develop an AI model that could classify the quality of hardware products more accurately as well as predict future product return rates. With the deployment of the AI product risk classification solution in October 2019, IBM was able to reduce the training for the AI model from 4 hours to just 15 minutes with IBM PowerAI. The time and cost savings were amplified by the fact that product engineers no longer had to sort through large volumes of data manually.

Three major factors will determine the success of AI in business — language, automation and trust. “The Covid-19 crisis and increased demand for remote work capabilities are driving the need for AI automation at an unprecedented rate and pace,” says Mr Rob Thomas, senior vice president of IBM Cloud and Data Platform.

“With automation, we are empowering next-generation CIOs and their teams to prioritise the crucial work of today’s digital enterprises — managing and mining data to apply predictive insights that help lead to more impactful business results and lower cost.”

This is crucial in view of the global economic fallout.  In April, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) Boards of Directors approved an enhanced package of US$14 billion to assist companies and countries in responding to the pandemic. The stimulus will strengthen national systems for public health preparedness, including for disease containment, diagnosis, treatment, and support for the private sector. IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, will raise its Covid-19-related financing availability to US$8 billion as part of the US$14 billion package, up from an earlier US$6 billion.

“It’s essential that we shorten the recovery time. This package provides urgent support to businesses and their staff to cushion the financial and economic impact of the spread of Covid-19,” says Mr David Malpass, president of the World Bank Group. “The World Bank Group is committed to a fast, flexible response based on the needs of developing countries. Support operations are already underway, and the expanded funding tools approved today will help sustain economies, companies and jobs.”

SSG & skills

Subsequently, the rapid increase in demand for AI skills would require companies — and even countries — to ramp up skills upgrading in the workforce. 

Addressing this need, Skills Future Singapore (SSG) and IBM entered a partnership last October to train 2,500 Singaporeans in AI skills in human resource management (HRM), supply chain management (SCM) and media over the next three years. Singapore’s former Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced this at an event to mark SSG’s second anniversary.

Two courses are ready while another three will be ready later this year. They will cover theories, the creation of chatbots, data analytics and other related areas. 

“The courses are designed to help Singaporeans understand the fundamentals of AI technology and how it can be applied in the workplace,” SSG and IBM highlight  in a statement. “Apart from helping workers build deep knowledge and capabilities in AI, the courses will boost AI implementation in local enterprises. IBM is one of the first major technology partners to take a direct role in Singapore’s training ecosystem.”

Getting employees back to their workplace requires new approaches to ensure their health and safety. To mitigate this, IBM launched Watson Works, a curated set of AI-enabled products and solutions to help companies navigate the various aspects of employee engagement.

It also provides data-driven insights to help employers make informed decisions on workplace re-entry, facilities management, space allocation and other issues. “We designed Watson Works to help businesses navigate the workplace with the ongoing Covid-19 health crisis as effectively as possible,” explains Mr Bob Lord, senior vice president for Cognitive Applications, Blockchain and Ecosystems at IBM. “Applying AI models and applications is especially useful in this context, where there are so many different sources of information businesses must consider, and every aspect of the situation is in flux.”

AI Assist for Citizens

Meanwhile, IBM is also offering its chatbot service “Watson Assistant for Citizens” at no charge for a minimum of 90 days. It will assist with the initial set up, which can be done in a few days, and includes access to 15 pre-trained Covid-19 intents or queries.

“Intents are purposes or goals  expressed in a customer’s input, such as answering a question,” an IBM spokesperson says. “By recognising the intent expressed in a customer’s input, the Watson Assistant service can choose the correct dialogue flow to respond to it.”

Organisations can also work with IBM to customise the base model and intents by including specific information related to a city or a region, and  integrate the organisation’s back-end enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

The AI system leverages currently-available data from external sources, including the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local authorities on a state website. IBM is delivering this service in the United States, Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Britain as of now.

Preparing for tomorrow today
Like every other transformative technology — from the steam engine to the internet — AI will ultimately create more jobs than it displaces. Technology companies must do their part to prepare people for this future of work, which will require more interaction with technology.

 During his keynote at IBM’s Think Digital event recently, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna urged companies to build resilience into their businesses and networks in response to the unprecedented challenges presented by Covid-19. 

“History will look back on this as the moment when the digital transformation of business and society suddenly accelerated,” he said. “This is an opportunity to develop new solutions, new ways of working, and new partnerships that will benefit your company and your customers, not just today, but for years to come. Hybrid cloud and AI are two dominant forces driving digital transformation.”

Believe in the vision

A total of 36 women made it to IBM’s 2020 “Women Leaders in AI” list — compared to 40 in 2019. These are women from around the world who put artificial intelligence (AI) to work innovatively in their respective domains. One of them — Ms Soh Siewchoo, managing director, of DBS Bank Singapore — was in the 2019 list. 

Two women from Singapore — Ms Aarthi Fernandez and Ms Lee-Lim Sok Keow — made it to the 2020 list. Here’s a brief about them and their AI-related work.

Ms Fernandez is the global head of Trade Operations Product at Standard Chartered. The bank processes 36 million trade documents every year. Standard Chartered collaborated with IBM to co-create the Trade AI Engine to speed up review and approval times, and to improve the bank’s controls and audit posture. “The Trade AI Engine converts paper documents, which are unstructured and voluminous, into machine-readable formats. It then learns and improves the accuracy rate for subsequent documents,” says Ms Fernandez. “The project has been a testament to the collaboration between man and machine to enhance service. While AI intelligently handles the review process, we can focus on structuring complex deals customised for our clients, while also keeping stringent checks on our control environment.”
Ms Aarthi Fernandez, global head of Trade Operations Product at Standard Chartered. PHOTO: IBM SINGAPORE

Ms Lee-Lim is the deputy principal at Temasek Polytechnic (TP). In January 2018, TP launched its “Ask TP” chatbot which was powered by IBM Watson Assistant and hosted on the IBM Cloud. In the first two weeks of 2020, “Ask TP” responded to more than 4,350 questions from nearly 1,730 unique users.

“We have thousands of prospective students, parents and teachers who call our staff, attend our open house events and go to our website for information about our course offerings, admissions requirements, career prospects of our graduates, and more,” Ms Lee-Lim says. “We turned to Watson to develop a chatbot that could help our stakeholders find the information they were looking for, 24/7. This has also freed up time for our admissions officers to deal with more complex issues.”

Ms Lee-Lim Sok Keow, deputy principal at Temasek Polytechnic. PHOTO: IBM SINGAPORE

What makes an AI project successful? 

“First, you have to believe in the vision,” Ms Fernandez says. “This meant changing the way things have been done for more than 150 years. Second, have a learning mindset. Admit mistakes, learn from them, pick ourselves up and keep going. Third, recognise that technology is a key differentiator. Our biggest challenge was the varying levels of exposure to digitisation among the players in a single chain of trade finance. With the Trade AI Engine, we’ve been able to transform the way we process our transactions and show our clients a visible benefit in the service they experience.”

What was the learning for TP as it implemented AI? 

“Working on Ask TP provided us with rich insights about the types of questions our students and other stakeholders have, and their course preferences,” Ms Lee-Lim says. “The chatbot databank could capture user ratings, comments, trending topics and other data-driven information. This helped us refine our answers to improve the customer experience. We are now better prepared for student and parent seminars, for example, because we can anticipate and address pressing concerns and topics of interest.”

What advice would they give others who are considering using AI? 

“AI is an experience, a journey which cannot be achieved overnight,” Ms Fernandez says. “There may not be ready examples to turn to, so the path is unknown and lonely. Have faith in the science of machine learning and AI, and be ready to adapt and evolve.”

“I have come to deeply appreciate that people are the most critical assets in an organisation,” Ms Lee-Lim says. “Leaders must develop and build teams, not individuals.”

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