Chatbot use surges amid pandemic as digital transformation accelerates


A Salesforce exec details the ways financial services companies like PenFed are implementing AI bots to improve and expedite customer service.

Image: iStock/paitoonpati

Due to the coronavirus, organizations around the globe have been forced to reinvent their traditional workflows on short notice. During this time, companies have transitioned from the standard office to the virtual workplace. Schools and universities have adopted online learning educational models. At the same time, a number of organizations were required to shudder for weeks on end due to state lockdown measures and customers shopping habits have shifted online during the pandemic.

As a result of these logistical shifts en masse, COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation, from artificial intelligence systems to cloud-based software solutions, across industries. An increasing number of organizations are leveraging AI chatbots to engage with users during the pandemic. We recently spoke with a Salesforce representative about this trend and the new normal in AI-enhanced customer engagement.

“We’ve seen during the pandemic, even very early on with it, that firms realize that they should not be pausing their digital transformation. They should actually be putting their foot on the gas pedal, hitting the floor and going all out with their transformation strategy,” said Rohit Mahna, SVP and GM of financial services at Salesforce.

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Last month, Salesforce announced the expansion of a partnership with Pentagon Federal Credit Union (PenFed), one of the largest federal credit unions in the US. In 2019, 100% of PenFed’s service desk issues were managed over the phone. Now, PenFed has implemented AI bots to improve and expedite customer service. During this time, PenFed has tasked bots with managing internal service requests such as helping people reset passwords.

Year over year, PenFed’s AI chatbot use has surged. Since PenFed has implemented chatbots, 37% of issues are managed by phone, another 42% are resolved via chat, and about one in five (21%) are handled by chatbots. By allowing bots to tackle more common rudimentary technical issues, this eases the burden on humans at the service desk, enabling them to focus on more complex IT issues.

“If you’re seeing an influx of customer inbound requests, how do you personalize that experience? It’s probably not you, personally, dealing with every one of those inbound requests. A great way to do it is to have an excellent omnichannel strategy. One of the hottest opportunities we’re seeing right now is customers implementing AI-powered chatbots,” Mahna said.

Offering a basic chatbot does not offer the same level of customer engagement as more advanced chatbot solutions. It’s interesting to note that as part of the chatbot Salesforce platform customers can also utilize the company’s AI capabilities for more personalized communication.

“The importance of that is now that chatbot is now intelligent in essence with embedded AI, so it’s not just providing your customer with automated responses but also personalizing those responses, so it’s aware that maybe if you’re chatting about an incredibly important and time sensitive life event like you’ve been furloughed, you’ve got a mortgage payment that you’re concerned about, it can be much more of an empathetic chatbot and experience,” Mahna said.

Mahna reiterated the need for companies to offer an omnichannel approach to customer engagement. However, it’s also important to ensure that these various channels intersect from a data retention and engagement perspective. This allows organizations to utilize chatbots when appropriate and transfer internally to a representative when the conversation may require human engagement.

“You could start the conversation in a chatbot and then when it gets to something that, maybe, you find very sensitive, you then can transfer that over to someone that you could speak to or meet with, or book an appointment to go meet someone face-to-face or through Zoom. I think that’s an important point, too, of a good omnichannel strategy,” Mahna said.

Companies can utilize customer relationship management (CRM) solutions across these various communication mediums. This allows this shared data to easily transfer from one communication to another without needing the person taking over the call to restart the conversation from square one.

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From a customer perspective, being transferred through a labyrinthian call center or communication network can be frustrating at a time when many individuals are already struggling due to the pandemic and related economic turmoil. However, Mahna believes that these lessons learned during this time period will position companies for success beyond the short term.

“It’s really about the execution of a flawless omnichannel strategy,” Mahna said. “And I think that is one of the things that we’re going to see coming out of the pandemic, that the firms that really embrace executing an omnichannel strategy are going to be the ones that are the winners in the eyes of the customer.”

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