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Japan Airlines personalizes customer experience with IBM Watson on the IBM Cloud

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Japan Airlines WatsonFor consumers, it’s refreshing when a large company treats them as human beings with real personalities instead of letting them feel lost in the crowd.

For airlines, the sheer volume of flights and travelers can sometimes make it difficult to provide a personalized customer experience. When airports are busy and flights are full, passengers can sometimes get the impression that their airline simply sees them as objects to be transported from point A to point B.

Japan Airlines decided to set a new standard for customer service. We wanted to provide a more personalized service by learning from our customers and taking their personalities into account.

Given the vast number of passengers who travel with us each year, this was an impossible undertaking for our employees to accomplish alone. So, we turned to artificial intelligence (AI). More specifically, we looked to an AI customer service solution on the IBM Cloud.

Harnessing AI for customer engagement

We had two main objectives for our first project. First, we wanted to challenge ourselves to explore the potential of state-of-the-art AI solutions. Second, we wanted to engage with our customers in a way that would truly enhance their flying experience with Japan Airlines.

We quickly identified a focus area for the project. One of Japan Airlines’ most important strategic destinations is Hawaii, which is around a seven-hour flight from Tokyo. We noticed that many travelers—especially parents traveling with young children—were concerned about the long flight, or had questions about vacationing in the Hawaiian islands. A disproportionate number of calls to our call center came from customers in this group.

We realized that we could save our customers and employees a lot of time with a virtual assistant powered by AI. As a pilot project, we built an application called Makana-chan, which uses IBM Watson Developer Cloud services in the IBM Cloud, and can be accessed by smartphone or computer. Makana-chan’s chat dialog interface understands free-form questions from customers and responds appropriately, thanks to IBM Watson Assistant and IBM Watson Natural Language Classifier services.

Makana-chan’s name is based on the Hawaiian word for “gifts,” and the AI chatbot has certainly been a gift for our customers and our busy customer service team. We launched the app in December 2016 after around six months of training. We soon found that Makana-chan could satisfactorily answer questions on a wide range of relevant topics for parents traveling to Hawaii with infants. For example, it could provide advice about the services available for babies at airports, in-flight options for meals and sleeping arrangements, whether babies need passports, how to find medical assistance and where to buy baby food in Hawaii.

Travelers were also pleasantly surprised by the personable nature of Makana-chan. The app’s friendly, conversational tone helped put them at ease.

Extending personalization to new groups of customers

Buoyed by the success of this trial project, we decided to extend our ambitions further, using Makana-chan to expand our personalized service to other groups of visitors to Hawaii. The focus of our second project was to offer customized advice on things to do and places to visit on the islands.

We worked with IBM Global Business Services – Application Development and Innovation and IBM Watson Services to create a second iteration of Makana-chan. This enhanced iteration responds to natural language questions from travelers and matches them with a range of local leisure destinations and activities in Hawaii. The information is provided through a partnership with TripAdvisor.

What makes Makana-chan truly innovative is its highly personalized recommendations, which are enabled by an in-depth analysis and understanding of our customers’ personalities. These insights are made possible by using IBM Watson Personality Insights to analyze customers’ Facebook and Twitter posts when they log in. Makana-chan can then assign the traveler one of nine personality types and give appropriate advice based on their interests and preferences.  This level of communication and understanding of our customers truly differentiates us from our peers in Japan.

The latest version of Makana-chan also integrates IBM Watson Visual Recognition, which can analyze customers’ photos, detect their age, gender and other characteristics, and use this data to improve its recommendations.

Lifting customer satisfaction

We are still in the early stages of the project, but Makana-chan has demonstrated how we can use AI to transform customer engagement. For example, a customer survey showed that more than 70 percent of customers were satisfied with the service they received from Makana-chan, and over 80 percent would recommend the service to others.

We are actively looking to expand Makana-chan for businesses and consumers, and we are constantly seeking to improve its scope and accuracy. We have also recently launched a second virtual assistant service, “Maira-chan,” which provides a similar service for travelers visiting Guam.

We are delighted to be playing a leading role in improving Japanese airline passengers’ experience through this pioneering use of AI. We look forward to working with IBM to explore other ways in which virtual assistants like Makana-chan and Maira-chan can benefit Japan Airlines and our customers.

Learn more about what your company can create with Watson on the IBM Cloud.

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