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loveholidays: improving the contact center experience with conversational AI

At loveholidays, one of the UK’s fastest-growing online travel agents, we consider ourselves a tech company that sells travel. Our tech stack underpins everything we do. Previously, technology placed a limit on what we could achieve. The two large sales peaks we experience every year — at the end of the year and over the summer — presented a challenge to our former on-premises infrastructure, making it difficult to process bookings efficiently. After prioritizing technology, and moving to Google Cloud, our site now has the scalability and elasticity to meet those peaks effectively, handling a hundredfold increase in demand from our quietest day to our busiest, without any impact on our customers. Technology has set us free in terms of what we can achieve.

Nowhere is that more the case than in our contact center. loveholidays is growing fast. Last year we handled 1,000 contacts a day, now we handle up to 3,000. Scaling at that rate is not only expensive in terms of customer service agents, it is also immensely challenging in terms of operational complexity, and the stakes are high if we are unable to handle that volume of inquiries. Our customers buy protected package holidays, meaning we have a duty of care to our customers. If they are unable to get through to us with their concerns about everything from flight cancellations to natural disasters, it can cause them understandable distress.

Fielding customer inquiries with virtual agents

With our emphasis on choosing the right tech and finding the force multipliers to allow us to leverage small investments for big growth, we turned to Contact Center AI (CCAI), part of Google Cloud’s suite of AI products. Using Dialogflow in CCAI, we created a virtual assistant (VA) that could handle a portion of our inquiries without the need for human agent interaction, which both reduced costs and improved the customer experience. We first trialed our VA during the pandemic, when the main reason for contacting us was to get a refund for a canceled booking, making the inquiries easy to handle and accelerating our responsiveness to customers. As the pandemic eased, and travel returned, customers began calling us for a growing number of reasons, and we expanded the intents in the VA to handle a wider range of calls.

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it

Within its first year, our solution was already handling 10% of all customer service traffic, with customers connected to a VA in a fraction of a second, their inquiries generally handled within six branches of the conversational flow, and chats lasting less than 50 seconds. Inspired by this success, we continued to invest in our virtual contact center, with a move to the more advanced Dialogflow CX. This allowed us to build more complexity into our conversational AI, including a type of short-term memory that maintained the context of the customer’s call across different subject areas in the VA. It also gave us visual maps of everything we built to help us monitor and manage the system.

At the same time, we obsess over the language and tone of our VAs, to ensure they provide not only information but reassurance. We do this by repeatedly testing everything our VAs say to our customers. Every time we create a new response to a particular line of inquiry, we observe how well that response converts with our customers. We expect to see around five percent of our customers satisfied with these first versions, and we then take those responses and tweak them to drive up that conversion rate, playing constantly with language and tone until we reach 75% of customers satisfied with the response they receive. And then we move on to honing the next line of response. Thanks to all this development, we now have VAs handling 50% of all our traffic, saving our business £3 million to date.

Reassuring customers with the right agent for each inquiry

With so many calls handled by our VAs, our human agents now have more time to resolve the more sensitive and complex cases. For all other inquiries though, we believe our VAs provide exceptional support. Not only are they able to be trained on, and store, a vast amount of information to quickly and authoritatively answer any query, they also persistently achieve high accuracy. This is backed up by our own data, with our VAs performing consistently highly in our customer satisfaction scores.

Meet Sandy, our voice AI

Following the success of our chat VA, we recently developed a voice agent called Sandy to handle the small portion of inquiries that are made by phone. All of our calls are initially answered by Sandy, which filters them according to the customer’s intent and routes them appropriately. Many are passed to human agents, but we have already managed to fully automate certain call flows, such as those who call because they have entered the wrong email address in their registration and can’t access their booking. Sandy is able to offer all those callers the information they need to resolve their issues, while being an authoritative company voice to ease their concerns.

Shaping our business strategy with profound customer insights

Perhaps the most impactful outcome of our work with Contact Center AI, however, is the data product we have built using CCAI Insights, which gives us a detailed picture of everything our customers want and need. Gone are the days when we would conduct focus groups to understand what our customers really thought. Instead, we capture and categorize data on all customer interactions, chat and voice, that occur every day. We use these insights to shape our business strategy and decide where to invest resources. For example, if we see that a significant portion of customers are experiencing the same problem, such as a lack of information about a particular airline, we can fix it by adding more content to the VA and by building APIs to feed more relevant flight information into our website. Millions of pounds of investment is now driven by the insights we receive from our conversational AI interactions with our customers.

As we continue to develop our VAs in both voice and chat to the point where they can handle almost all inquiries we have noticed a shift in the way we now think about our contact center. We are no longer worrying about whether it will be able to scale to handle the annual spike at Christmas. Instead, we are thinking about how quickly and effectively we will be able to handle each individual customer contact. All of our anxieties about our infrastructure have gone, leaving us to focus exclusively on our customers and their experience of our services. For a company that is growing as quickly as we are, that is an exciting place to be.

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