Vodafone admits to customer service failings, and turns to digital channels to solve them

Less than a year after Vodafone was fined £4.6 million by Ofcom for, amongst other things, its handling of customer complaints, the telco has invested in digital channels in a bid to turn things around.

Over the past 18 months the company has introduced live chat into its MyVodafone app for users to engage with customer service reps, or even an AI chatbot called TOBi, 24/7. Next it is looking at voice biometrics and an Alexa skill, as the organisation goes on an innovation drive.

A troubled migration from seven billing systems to a single consumer billing platform around four years ago is at fault for a number of the issues customers faced, as well as some much needed investment in the network infrastructure, but Vodafone is ready to own up to some of the customer service challenges it experienced at that time.

Speaking to journalists at Vodafone's London base on Great Suffolk Street yesterday, Neil Blagden, director of commercial and customer operations, admitted: "Vodafone has had some well trodden troubles over the last three to four years...leading to some negativity from the customer base."

Now, "we have the luxury of a single management system which allows us to plug it in via one set of integrations into multiple channels," he said.

When it comes to customers service, Blagden says his role has been "centred around fixing systems, processes, our contact centre estate, the people within that estate being competent. That journey has taken 18 months," he said.

Next, the company is looking to allow customers to engage with it via more digital channels and consolidate its contact centre estate down from 33 to 10 global "super centres".

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By owning up to its mistakes, and modernising the tech stack for its customer service agents, Vodafone has already seen its Net Promoter Score (NPS) -- a metric for measuring customer satisfaction -- jump 61 percent, from -35% in November 2015), to +25 percent in April 2017 for transactional feedback. The volume of calls into its contact centres are also at a record low.

Live chat and TOBi

Blagden wants Vodafone to go from being "voice-centric" to focused on digital channels, and admits that this will mean hiring more digital talent into the organisation. "We have been in the wilderness from a digital perspective if we are honest about it", he said. "A lot of this is about establishing Vodafone as a place to work for digital, so we want to recruit good people and be seen as an innovator."

The live chat functionality went live in MyVodafone app in May and looks like a consumer-grade application -- think WhatsApp -- complete with notifications. The backend software comes from specialist vendor LivePerson.

Customers will be assigned a preferred agent and handed off when they have specific issues or if the agent is not at work. Customers may also speak to agents via Facebook Messenger or on Twitter.

There is also the option to engage with a chatbot. TOBi is a branded instance of IBM' Watson's off the shelf virtual assistant and was introduced to customers in April. It is due to go live to all customers within the next ten days.

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In the early days TOBi was configured to answer popular support questions -- essentially automated FAQs -- but has been expanded since to be able to answer account-specific queries.

Richard Clarke, head of contact transformation at Vodafone admits that TOBi's "text understanding technology is pretty robust". The challenge comes with building the customer journeys to deal with the question being asked and connecting with the right backend service to deal with it. The plan is for 110 'intents' to be programmed by the end of the year.

The virtual agent service is charged on a SaaS basis from IBM, and Vodafone says that although it can't disclose financial details it is priced on a pay-as-you-use API call model, and that thanks to Vodafone's scale it is "cheap compared to humans in contact centres," Clarke said.

What next?

Next, Vodafone is trialling new voice biometrics so that customers can verify their identity with a spoken password and access their details quickly. The aim is for more contextual routing of calls so that customers spend less time on hold, or navigating a question tree to reach an agent.

The telco is also working on an Alexa skill for owners of Amazon’s personal assistant to ask questions about their account, like their last bill amount, or how much data they have left.

In all the company is turning to digital channels to allow customers to access help and information 24/7 as more and more customers would rather use live chat than voice. Vodafone is still on this journey, and will close more contact centres and spend more on technology as a result, but the early indicators are all positive.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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