2 min read

Why IVR and chatbots are disappointing

Man holding his head in hands

Gartner just released their latest hype cycle for AI.

Right there in the trough of disillusionment are chatbots.

What went wrong? Everyone was so excited about the possibilities!

I think it’s a general issue with AI. Or at least, our perception of AI.

Humans evolved to create and maintain highly complex social groups. To do this, our brains try to understand what other humans are thinking, so we can anticipate and provide for each other’s needs. Or anticipate and avoid an attack.

But we over-generalize. We fall in love with cats, that probably don’t love us. We complain that a dog is naughty when they’re just responding to the stimuli we introduce into their environment.

We over-generalize with pets that have surprisingly similar DNA, biology, and brains to us.

Imagine just how easy it is for us to over-generalize with AI that appears to do things like we do.

Like chatbots, that ask and respond to questions.

But chatbots share almost none of the underlying biology (infrastructure), DNA (programming) nor experience (data) that makes us who we are.

And that’s the issue. We can’t use our intuition to understand what AI is capable of. When Google shows off an AI chatbot that pretends to be an airplane and appears to chat convincingly with their human creators (I wrote about it here) it’s easy to imagine those capabilities will extend to the chatbot we deploy in our contact center.

But Google’s chatbot isn’t intelligent like us.

It’s not flexible, helpful, and resourceful, like us.

It’s just a computer program that’s harnessing billions of examples of conversation to say something plausible. It might be good at chatting about folding paper and flying. But it doesn’t know your business needs. Nor your legacy processes. Nor to whom it should turn for help if it gets stuck. Unless you provide very detailed instructions to it.

And that’s the issue. IVR, voice or chatbot platform plus data does not equal the capabilities of a human agent.

Nowhere near it.

You have to provide the instructions. That’s what Conversation Designers do. They teach robots to talk.

The latest AI algorithms make this easier. You don’t have to teach the bots everything. Conversational AI platforms have general models of language built in to help IVR and chatbots understand what a customer says. But only at the surface level. You have to provide them with lots of examples to fill in the gaps.

You also have to provide very precise instructions on how to behave based on what they think a customer said. And meant.

The platforms try to make that easier with nice-looking graphical interfaces to build your bots with. But they provide an illusion of simplicity. Just because you can quickly build a bot, doesn’t mean you can actually build a bot to do what your business needs. There are lots of gaps, and corner cases that can catch you out.

Conversation Designers, and the teams that support them, need to understand what Conversational AI platforms are capable of, and work around those constraints to build a bot that customers will engage with, and understand. And that will engage with and understand them. But only in certain, very narrow, situations.

2 min read

Talking to Conversational AI powered Paper Airplanes

Talking to Conversational AI powered Paper Airplanes

We’ve got AI. Who needs designers?

That’s the question that popped into my head when watching Google’s incredible LaMDA demo.

Google used a new type of neural network, called a ‘Transformer’, and fed it with data. But not just any data. They gave it transcriptions of dialog. Conversations.

What came out was quite incredible. The chatbot had a very natural-sounding chat with one of the researchers. As a rather interesting twist, it pretended to be a paper airplane! And Pluto (the dwarf planet). Yes, you read that right.

Here’s an extract of the conversation…

A picture of a paper aeroplane with an extract of a chat between an researcher and an AI program pretending to be an Aeroplane

(Image credit: Google)

With AI that good. Do we still need Conversation Design? Do we need Conversation Designers?

Yes. Because your business doesn’t need to have random conversations about Pluto or paper airplanes.

You need to have conversations that help your customers get stuff done. That engage them. That communicate your brand.

Conversation Design isn’t just about crafting prompts and defining intents in your favorite IVR, voice assistant, or chatbot platform.

Yes, Conversation Design involves the nuts and bolts of conversation:

  • Predicting and understanding what customers say
  • Responding with language that’s easy to understand
  • Managing turn-taking
  • Handling misunderstandings

But great Conversation Design also involves activities that go much deeper and wider…

  • Deciding the right steps to solve a problem
  • Curating content that will help and inform
  • Converting that content into conversational form
  • Showing empathy
  • Managing expectations (customer and business)
  • Communicating brand attributes

The role of Conversation Designers will change over time. Right now we have to teach our Conversational AI platforms almost everything. In the future, they’ll handle more of the nuts and bolts of the conversation. Just like web and mobile frameworks make it easy to build functional websites.

But smart, helpful, friendly, resourceful… even emotionally intelligent? Will AI pick up the slack there too? Not for a long time.

The age of Conversation Design, and the opportunity for Conversation Designers has many, many years to run 😁

5 min read

Align Your Conversational AI Team by Framing Problems — Not Solutions

Align Your Conversational AI Team by Framing Problems — Not Solutions

Getting everyone on your conversational AI team on the same page is the only way to solve problems effectively. However, that’s not always easy. Holding a workshop to generate alignment is a great idea — but the focus needs to be in the right place.

Project managers and team members from various departments often get ahead of themselves. They rush toward solutions without stopping to work out what the real problem is. The result? In the majority of cases: Projects veer off-course, the team loses focus, and stakeholders are left puzzled as to why things didn’t work out as they expected.

So before you kick-off your next Conversational AI project, start by framing the problem, not the solution. A properly run problem-framing workshop is the key to avoiding those issues. Here’s how you do it.

How to Identify the Problem Your IVR, voice or Chatbots Must Solve

Conversational AI can be extremely good in very narrowly defined situations like routing someone to the right place, identifying who’s getting in touch, verifying they are who they say they are, giving status updates on an order, or arranging an appointment.

Coming up with solutions can feel more productive than identifying the underlying problem. But finding the right solutions requires a concrete understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve.

That’s why taking the time to discuss and align on the problems that are affecting your business before you start building your Bots is critical. That’s where the conversational AI Problem Framing workshop comes in. It’s a structured workshop that aligns teams around the problems that are affecting their business.

Conduct a Problem-Framing Workshop

Your problem-framing workshop has several goals. It should give your team an opportunity to:

  • Explore current business needs surrounding specific areas
  • Discuss and vote on the most critical problems
  • Look at what the business wants to achieve
  • Provide input to justify the need for change, and the cost if nothing changes
  • Consider existing team knowledge and expertise that will help them meet their goals
  • Evaluate any obstacles that could get in the way of achieving those goals

That’s the general idea of what you want your conversational AI problem-solving workshop to achieve. At this point, you’re probably wondering: How do I do all of that?

Successfully Framing Problems Requires Strong Facilitation. Keep Your Conversational AI Team on Track.

Your session needs a clear aim, and a facilitator. That could be you, someone else on your team, or someone from outside of your business. Let’s assume you’re going to facilitate.

As a facilitator, the first thing to remember is that your workshop is not about progress. It’s about aligning your team on a common problem. The best way to do that is to give everyone a chance to voice their opinions about the problems affecting the business, and why they need to be fixed. This process helps you to paint a big picture view of the types of problems that you’re facing today.

Keep these key points in mind as you facilitate your workshop.

  • Collaboration is a must. This shouldn’t just be a passive discussion. Experts on the team should write down their views, and invite others to read them, organize them, and vote on key ideas.
  • Workshops only work with open minds. During these workshops, participants can sometimes feel as though they’re revisiting old conversations. That’s absolutely fine. Encourage everyone to embrace the opportunity to share and to take the time to explore different perspectives.
  • Collaboration requires preparation. In-person collaboration requires familiar materials — whiteboards, sharpies, sticky notes, voting dots, etc. But remote collaboration, a necessity during travel bans and lockdowns, requires different tools. Software like Miro and Mural allow for remote collaboration by replacing whiteboards, sticky-notes, and voting dots, with digital equivalents. If your team is new to online collaboration, factor in some warm-up activities to allow participants to get to grips with the basics before you get going with your workshop .
  • Act as a guide, not an expert. A good facilitator helps participants access their own knowledge. They create a safe space for collaboration, with a clear structure and aim. Engage your participants, keep them interested, and challenge them. Keep instructions clear and simple. Don’t just tell them what they’re doing. Tell them, then demonstrate it, then sum it all up again.
Ask Questions About the Problems Your Voice, IVR, and Chatbots Face.

Asking questions helps avoid shifting your focus to solutions, keeping it on problems. There are some important questions that every problem-framing workshop should cover:

  • What undesirable situations or challenges exist? Encourage your team to think about this from the business and internal stakeholders’ perspective. What does the business need? Are too many calls hitting agents in the contact center? Is handling contacts currently too expensive? Sales too low?
  • What are you actually looking to achieve? Consider the problems your group identified, and imagine looking back on the project 20 years down the road. What would success look like? Where did it land you? What are the positive and negative impacts on your team, other teams, and the business as a whole? If the problem were resolved, would the results justify the effort? If you don’t get there, what does that future look like?
  • What’s happening in the problem space? Ask the group to think about ‘What they know or do already that can help move towards their goal’. What could hold them back . What obstacles stand between where they are today, and where they want to get to? These might be things like legacy technology, or broken internal processes — what’s taking the wind out of their sails?
  • How might we? Use “how might we” questions (HMWs) to generate ideas about correcting course. Once you’ve got your list of top issues to address with conversational AI, ask how you might avoid them. This is a great way of converting negative ideas into positive ones.  

3 Simple Tips to Avoid Common Pitfalls when Framing IVR, Voice, and Chatbot Problems

The whole purpose of a problem-framing workshop is to tee up your IVR, voice, and chatbots for better success. The last thing you want to do at this stage is create more problems.

Avoid doing so by:

  • Keeping your timeframe in mind. Make a plan for your workshop, and stick to it. When you need to move on, move on. Don’t keep it in your head — get your workshop plan down on paper and hold yourself accountable for sticking to it.
  • Preparing your collaboration space. We touched on this above, but it’s up to you as the facilitator to make sure the attendees have what they need for a productive session. In-person or remote, physical or digital resources — have it ready.
  • Understanding your audience. Great facilitation is key to a successful conversational AI problem-framing workshop. That means you need to work with your audience. Throughout the workshop, look out for champions, supporters, fence-sitters, blockers, and snipers among the attendees. Certain participants might need coaching to keep them engaged — or to prevent them from disrupting the session.

Keep all of this in mind going into your session, as you work through your exercises, and as you wrap up, and you’ll be in good shape. A fruitful workshop asks a lot of its facilitator, but you’ll succeed as long as you attack the challenge in a strategic, structured way.

Remember, you can’t be a facilitator and a contributor at the same time. Facilitation is a great skill to learn and develop, but if you’re a key stakeholder, or subject matter expert, your skills and experience might be better deployed contributing to the workshop, instead of facilitating it. In that case, you should look outside your team for someone who could play the role of facilitator. Or look for a professional facilitator who can run a great workshop and make sure everyone who needs to contribute, can.

A problem framing workshop is a great starting point for building a Bot Strategy.

3 min read

Own your Bot Strategy. You can do this!

A medium rare steak on a wooden board

I love a good steak. But I was always scared of cooking one myself. I tried a couple of times and overcooked it. $50 of prime rib. Ruined. So I gave up.

Then about 10 years ago, Gordon Ramsay, the famous chef from Hell’s Kitchen, did a ‘cook along live’ show. It was a brilliant idea. He told you what to buy the week before, then you set up the television in the kitchen and literally cooked along with him. Live. He told you when to put the pan on, how to season the meat. He guided us through every step.

An hour later me and my future wife finished our desserts. 3 delightful dishes, and the best steak I’d ever had. Anywhere.

We’re all capable of more than we think. We just need the confidence to do it. The right ingredients and the right guide can make all the difference.

In the last email in this series, I laid out the 8 steps to delivering a brilliant IVR, voice, and chatbot strategy. It’s not a quick fix. It takes about 6-8 weeks, and a bit of effort, but the results can be incredible.

We took a large US retailer through this process a couple of years back, and I recently spoke to their senior product manager, Bindi, who was in charge of the IVR project, to see how things were going. She said this:

“The Bot Strategy process was a cornerstone of our ability to progress so quickly”

Within 18 months they had transformed their IVR, and they’re now looking at rolling out a chatbot too.

But not everyone wants or can afford to pay us to do this for them. That’s why we decided to launch the Bot Strategy Bootcamp. Well, that and my experience with Gordon Ramsay!

Bot Strategy Bootcamp takes this same process and guides you through it. It’s not your usual corporate training event where you learn some stuff you could have got from Google, get back to the office after a couple of days and forget what you learned as you dig your way out of a mountain of emails.

Bot Strategy Bootcamp is a 3-day online course with 12 hours of interactive sessions. We don’t just teach you the process, we give you the tools and templates we use to identify opportunities, create a vision, build a business case, and define a phased program of work that delivers measurable impact and solid ROI for your business.

During the course, you’ll practice using these tools. By the end of the course, you’ll have everything you need to go build a brilliant bot strategy.

Bootcamp costs $2k. Discounts are available for multiple attendees from the same organization.

That’s less than 5% of the cost of getting in external consultants.

It’s nothing compared to the cost of false starts and delays in this critical area of business transformation.

Participants in the first round of Bootcamp said:

“The training was amazing. I come from an IT background, and I learned a lot.”
“Before it was like the wild west. This gives us the structure for prioritizing, planning and implementing”
“Do it! I loved the interactive sessions. Enjoyed every minute”

You can do this. But you need to take action now.

Check out the Bot Strategy Bootcamp brochure for more details.

If you’ve already got an IVR, voice, or chatbot deployed, or you’ve got plans to build one, Bootcamp will make sure you too are able to progress as quickly as Bindi and her team.

In the meantime, suffice to say that with the confidence that Gordon gave me, I’ve gone on to cook bigger and better steaks.

Here’s a favorite of mine:

Bone-in ribeye, also known as Cote de Boeuf. And don’t worry, I’m not blowing up the environment to enjoy a good steak like this. It comes from a local farm just down the road.

This is the last in a 6-part series on the Bot Management System, and Bot Strategy. Check out the earlier blogs here:

Why a new strategy is more important than a new platform

Why you should think of your IVR, voice and chatbots as a bot workforce, not just a piece of tech

How to apply the principles of HR to your bot workforce

Why you can’t leave your strategy up to your platform or tech provider. You need to own it

8 steps to delivering a brilliant IVR, voice, and chatbot strategy

4 min read

8 steps to a brilliant Bot Strategy

8 steps to a brilliant Bot Strategy

It’s time to build a Bot Strategy. Are you ready?

So far in this blog series we’ve talked about:

  1. Why a new strategy is more important than a new platform
  2. Why you should think of your IVR, Voice & chatbots as a workforce
  3. How to apply the principles of HR to your bot workforce
  4. Why you can’t leave your strategy to your tech vendor

Now I’m going to cover how to do that. How to build a bot strategy that suits you, and your business.

Like I said before. This is not trial and error, nor a 1-day workshop delivered by a tech partner to convince you to buy their stuff. This is a 6-8 week process. There are 8 steps.

Step 1 – Understand the strategic backdrop

What are you and your business trying to achieve? Think about these four areas: cost reduction, revenue enhancement, customer experience, and brand. Usually, everyone wants all of these, but go deeper. Will you invest money to improve the customer experience? Or does that investment need to be offset by cost savings? Do you want to differentiate your brand with Conversational AI, or just match the competition?

Step 2 – Review your experience, and your competitors’

You need to understand your starting point. Do a review of your current IVR, voice or chatbot experience. You don’t need to be an expert to do this. Designing conversational AI is not something everyone can do. But most humans know what good conversation is, so while you may not be able to design it, you can review it. Use our Customer Experience Checklist to guide you. Do the same for a couple of your closest competitors.

Step 3 – Get Context

Your bot workforce is part of a wider team. Now you understand what your bots are doing, you need to understand what your human agents are doing too. That means doing side-by-side call listening with agents and reviewing recordings or chat transcripts. Talk to a group of agents about the different requests they get and how they handle them. Review contact center reports to get a feel for the volumes of different tasks, and if you can, the approximate handling time for each of them.

Step 4 – Identify candidates for automation

Bots can’t do everything, so use the information in the previous step to highlight those tasks that occur frequently – at least 5% of total contact volume – and have a simple, repeatable process. These are candidates for automation. They don’t have to be whole calls or chats. They can just be the repeatable part of a longer process: identifying the customer, providing an account balance, or giving order status information.

Step 5 – Build the business case

Identifying direct financial benefits from customer experience and brand enhancements is very hard. There are strong correlations between customer experience and business value, but proving causation is very difficult. Attributing the benefits to a specific experience change is even harder. If you need to demonstrate ROI to get funding for your project, the best approach is to build a business case based on direct financial cost savings. So what’s the value of the tasks your bots perform in comparison to the alternative, which is usually having a human do it? Estimate the number of tasks your bots will perform and multiply by the average handling time for agents to do the same thing and the cost per minute of your agents. Then look at the size and complexity of each task, to get a feel for the cost. You don’t need decimal points here.  A t-shirt size is OK: small, medium, large.

Step 6 – Prioritize and plan

Some things that seem appealing early on, look less so when you’ve checked the value and cost. You can drop them. But you should still have a bunch of things that are worth doing. Don’t try and do it all in one go. First, identify the quick wins: decent volume, no IT dependencies, small t-shirt size. Next up, phase 1 should include bigger tasks, still with good volume, and manageable IT requirements… as in, the API is available now or it’s already on the IT roadmap. Phase 1 should also include foundational elements: things that you’ll need to build out your vision. Phase 2 and beyond includes everything else: tasks that will need new APIs built, or that rely on foundational elements from Phase 1. Make sure each phase has demonstrable ROI: the costs for delivering that phase need to be outweighed by the benefits calculated in the business case step.

Step 7 – Articulate the vision

Don’t skip this part! You’re deep into the weeds, and you know this project is worthwhile. But other stakeholders don’t have that detail, nor the time to consume it. You need to build a compelling story around the outcomes of the first 6 steps. There are many different approaches, but a simple framework to use is the hero’s journey:

Set the scene: the strategic backdrop, the review you did of your current experience.

Show the challenge and opportunity: what your competitors have (from your review), what you could have (candidates for automation).

Define the objective of the quest: It really helps if you can bring the vision to life with recorded audio samples or chatbot storyboards… but you’ll need a conversation designer for that.  If you don’t have access to one, take audio or screen recordings of examples you found in you competitor review and use those.

Then show the path to get there: your plan, and the ROI for each phase.

Step 8 – Deliver it!

Got buy-in? Got budget? Great, let’s do this! But remember this isn’t just a tech project. You’re building a bot workforce here, so you need to put a bot management system in place. Check out our Bot Management System e-book to get a feel for what that entails.

Phew. That’s a lot, right? And that’s why you can’t leave it to your tech vendor, nor do this in a couple of meetings or whiteboard sessions. This process really works, but you’ve got to put the time in.

You can do this, but this blog isn’t enough. Nor is reading a couple more blog articles. If it was, you’d have done it before, wouldn’t you? In my next blog article I’ll be showing you some options that will help you get this done.

In the meantime, let me know what you think of this approach. Have you done any of this already? Did it work for you? What problems did you encounter?

3 min read

Hair Cuts and Strategy

Hair Cuts and Strategy

I used to hate having a haircut. That dreaded question: so, what are we doing today?

What I really wanted was to look so awesome that I’d attract my perfect life partner. But at that time I hadn’t found her, so I clearly hadn’t been asking for the right haircut! I tended to leave the decision up to the hairdresser. “Whatever you think” I’d say.

The results were different every time, and never quite the outcome I’d hoped for.

One hairdresser made me look like I was in a boy band. Another cut my hair like the lead singer from Snow Patrol. Neither worked. They just weren’t right for me.

Eventually, I found my perfect partner and a haircut we’re both happy with. But it was trial and error. Partner and hair cut!

What getting a good haircut teaches us about Bot strategy

I see the same situation playing out in the field of IVR, voice and chatbots all the time. 

Companies are letting their tech vendor dictate their strategy:

“You need a chatbot”
“Deploy Natural Language”
“You need voice biometrics”

And my favorite nonsense requirement: “You need real AI”!

They’ll show great case studies and do an awesome demo. But it’s like the boy band haircut, it works in some situations, but maybe not yours.

A bot strategy that suits you

Like me and my haircut, most companies know what outcome they want from their conversational AI: it’s got to delight customers, enhance profits, and differentiate the brand. In essence, deliver amazing ROI. Otherwise, why bother?

But what does that actually look like? For you and your business? What haircut… I mean bot strategy is right for your business?

One thing’s for sure. It’s not the same as Amazon, Apple, or your competitors. Your customers are different. Your business processes are different. Your contact volumes are different. Your capability is different.

You need a bot strategy that suits you. One that will attract, delight, and retain perfect customers, just like I’d hoped my haircut would help me attract the perfect partner.

What a bot strategy looks like

Getting there is a process. But it’s not trial and error.

A brilliant bot strategy aligns 3 things: customer needs, business needs, and technical realities. And it articulates a vision for what bots can do in your business. Now. In 6 months’ time. Next year, and beyond.

It details where your bots add the most value, what they can do well, and what you still need humans to handle. It details the investment it’ll take, the organizational capabilities you’ll need, and the metrics that will ensure you’re on track to deliver the benefits.

Bot Strategy Discovery and Development

Over the last 20 years, me and my team have developed a process for this that we call Discovery. It’s not about sitting around a boardroom table or in front of a whiteboard and dreaming something up. And it’s not the 1-day session that tech vendors do to sell you their stuff. It’s a methodical, practical sequence of steps that takes 6-8 weeks and creates not just alignment, but excitement, and an orientation towards action.

Look out for my next blog where I take you through those steps to creating a brilliant bot strategy.

And don’t worry if you’re not sure if this is your job or your responsibility. I truly believe that every member of a team should contribute to the vision, and strategy of their organization. You can do this. You just need to follow the steps.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one question to think about:

What do you really want from your investments in IVR, voice, and/or chatbots?

Write down three items. Be as specific as you can. If you want some ideas, think about these three key areas: customer experience, brand communication, and profit (meaning revenue enhancement or cost reduction).

If you want some feedback or just some extra accountability, please email and send me what you write down. I’ll treat it completely confidentially, of course. The answers to this question will really help as you start to develop your strategy.

This is the fourth blog in a series, so if you haven’t already seen them, check out the earlier blogs in the series:

Part 1 – What’s the best Conversational AI platform

Part 2 – Why your IVR, voice & chat bot need HR for AI

Part 3 – Super agent or Nightmare agent?