How a worldwide crisis turned 2020 into the year of the customer service chatbot

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Almost a decade ago, Gartner made a bold prediction about the pervasiveness of chatbots in the year 2020. They predicted that customers would “manage 85% of their relationship … without interacting with a human.” In 2018, Gartner followed up on this sentiment, reporting that companies were expressing a “160% increase in … interest around implementing chatbots and associated technologies.” What they foresaw years ago has proved prescient: the use of chatbots–especially in customer service–has definitely become more common.

But in making that initial prediction so long ago, what Gartner did not anticipate was the global event pushing the accelerator on the use of chatbots in customer service. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven unparalleled rates of digital transformation–especially as it relates to improving customer experience. And companies are expected to continue to pursue digital transformation efforts in what’s been forecast as a $7.4 trillion dollar market.

Those that have embraced digital transformation and chatbot adoption have quickly realized the benefits. Consider how these four entities–a healthcare provider, a state government agency, and a university–leaned heavily into chatbot use. It made the difference in their ability to continue to provide customer service in the face of extraordinary and ever-changing circumstances.

Chatting with a virtual nurse

HonorHealth’s Symptom Checker

Recall that when COVID-19 hit, the healthcare system was quickly overwhelmed. From small clinics to urgent care facilities to hospitals, the virus meant all hands on deck to care for patients who had contracted the disease. On the heels of this surge in patient count were people uncertain if the symptoms they were experiencing might be the disease. They, too, flooded medical channels seeking answers.

HonorHealth runs various facilities in the Phoenix and Scottsdale area of Arizona. With approximately six thousand physicians and close to thirteen thousand employees, they play a large role in the healthcare of those in the area. Despite its size, HonorHealth’s nurse line was quickly strained by telephone calls from patients and others inquiring about COVID-19. 

HonorHealth’s team acted fast. In the span of four days, they built a symptom checker for the HonorHealth website. This chatbot was able to provide guidance to patients, provide links to the CDC for more information, and direct patients to chat live with a nurse if needed. This fast action reduced their call volume by 90%, allowing nurses to attend to more urgent work while still providing guidance and next steps for those concerned they might have contracted the disease.

Delivering unemployment certainty

Carolyn, the State of Delaware Department of Labor’s chatbot

Early on in the pandemic, many municipalities in the United States required residents to stay-at-home to help slow the virus’ spread. The impact was devastating for many businesses, and employees were furloughed or terminated. Despite efforts by the federal government to appropriate funds to prop up employees’ lost wages, the unemployment system in the United States struggled to keep up.

The State of Delaware’s Department of Labor (DDoL) was not immune. It saw its weekly average of four hundred and fifty claims a week jump to over sixty-four thousand claims in the first four weeks of the pandemic. While previously DDoL had offered some self-service options, citizens were not using them to the extent necessary to offset this dramatic increase in volume.

DDoL acted quickly. Not only did they deploy a chatbot, they also ensured it could direct citizens to answers in their extensive knowledge base. In just the first six weeks, the chatbot handled approximately four hundred seventy-five thousand interactions. This provided the relief needed for DDoL’s customer service staff to focus on more complex unemployment claims issues.

Reinventing student experience

COVID-19’s impact has not been limited to healthcare and business. It has also affected institutions of higher education. Though many have pivoted to some form of online learning, this has created new challenges around providing service to prospective and current students. Declining enrollment has meant the need to manage costs has not gone away.

Prior to the pandemic, American University had already been in the process of replacing its service delivery system. Their goal was to improve the student experience and transform how information was shared with students, families, faculty, and staff. With questions as varied as housing options, understanding fees and making payments, and issuing parking permits, their needs were broad.

Now, American University’s chatbot responds to these common requests. With its conversational approach, it can provide answers–be they school- or virus-related–available in several knowledge bases the university maintains.

Flattening the curve

Each of these stories has a common thread: the status quo was barely working, making even the smallest spike in contact volume a challenge to respond to. Then along came a pandemic that dealt a blow to enterprises of all types–businesses, healthcare providers, government agencies, and more.

While this has been an unprecedented time, still it demonstrates how growth in customer service volumes can quickly paralyze an organization. As the pandemic lingers and enterprises continue to take steps forward in their digital transformation, the number of customer service chatbots will continue to increase. As the stories here have demonstrated, chatbots can stem an unexpected surge and ensure customers continue to have the best experience possible regardless of the circumstances.

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