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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

“Amazon Alexa may not save money straight away but it’s about the long-term,” says Aylesbury Council’s Maryvonne Hassell

Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC) approached Salesforce, the CRM company whose technology was being used to create a single customer view in AVDC’s call centre, about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for customer service.

At the time, Salesforce’s Einstein product was still in early development, and so Salesforce put forward DigitalGenius.

“DigitalGenius has an AI algorithm that can read information that’s coming in from customers and codify it, it can then learn what the answer should be and suggest that back to an agent,” says Maryvonne Hassell, AVDC’s IT strategy manager.

In practice this means that if the organisation has a member of staff managing a webchat conversation, they will see the question coming in and DigitalGenius will pick that up, check it against the repository of information or knowledge base that it has got and work out what the answer should be. Then, it will send this answer in a window for the agent, with a degree of accuracy on to it.

The agent can either send the answer unedited or amend it and send it back, and the AI will learn from that response and will reconfigure what the answer is, meaning that it becomes more accurate as time goes on. For those answers that are over 90 percent accurate, the council is automating responses to customers.

Hassell explains that while the tool has been useful, it has taken time to build up its knowledge base and therefore accuracy. She says that it’s impossible for DigitalGenius to deal with all queries because the council gets asked very obscure questions on a regular basis. However, it has helped to deal with queries during out-of-office hours, and alert customers that if they’re not satisfied with the response then they would have to contact the council during scheduled hours.

Aylesbury’s Alexa

The council has also implanted an Alexa Skill to enable citizens to transact with the council through voice – making it easier for some citizens to engage without having to navigate through the council website.

“The aim is for people to call in to our call centre and we will transcribe that into text with a layer of AI on top of it and respond back verbally – and this would all be automated,” Hassell explains.

She believes that voice tech has a broad appeal to consumers, particularly because of the current marketing around it and the ability to integrate different applications to it.

There are talks around integrating Alexa and DigitalGenius too in order to answer queries.

“This would mean someone would ask Alexa a question from home, Alexa would contact the council which would contact DigitalGenius, who would give the right answer and pass this back to Alexa,” says Hassell.

The extension of DigitalGenius in other areas of the organisation is another consideration.

But while these AI tools are interesting, with budget cuts continually made on public services, is there more pressure for the IT team to ensure there is a return on investment on any new technologies?

“You still need to have a business case for everything you do but that might not return money straight away. For example, the Alexa Skill, we don’t really know how much people are going to use it, and if it’s a lot of people we may break even and if not then it may be this project raised the profile of voice technology and the next project will be the one that brings the money in,” Hassell states.

“The difference for us is that the business case doesn’t have to necessarily have a pure financial benefit on a case-by-case basis but overall it has to financially make sense,” she adds.

Some projects will save the council money in the long-term. Hassell uses the example of DigitalGenius as an area where money could be saved on staff costs.

“When we look at the stats, we can almost directly correlate the technology with headcount, so as a result of using the technology we could move people [to another area of the council] or ask people to spend longer on more complicated cases, or perhaps rather than continuing to recruit people we don’t increase our headcount any longer,” she suggests.

The benefits of AI, according to Hassell, will make a difference to the council in the long-term, and that’s why her team will continue the conversations of how they can use the technology more and more within the organisation.