How AI and chatbots helped telcoms strengthen their connections during COVID-19

Overwhelmed with requests during lockdown, communication service providers turned to AI to solve issues quickly

By | 5 minute read | July 15, 2021

When suddenly working from home, customers flooded telecom providers with support requests. AI helped companies cope. (Photo: Marília Castelli | Unsplash)

Calling customer service can be one of the more tedious experiences in life. But when a global pandemic has you stuck working from home for the foreseeable future and the WiFi cuts out, there’s little choice but to get on the line—and too often in line, for hours—with your provider.

For telecommunications service providers, the challenges are often even greater. The last thing they want is frustrated customers stuck on hold, yet suddenly there were millions of them. Customers became dependent on Internet and voice service in new ways, creating surges and outages literally all over the map.

When customer frustration gets passed on to customer service reps, it can lead to those workers’ own low spirits and burn out, especially if dealing with the same repetitive problems. On top of that, many of these service reps were themselves working from home, navigating new systems away from their reliable office connections and supportive colleagues.

“If we didn’t have these telecommunications companies, the world would have stopped,” Utpal Mangla, a vice president for IBM’s Telecom, Media and Entertainment Center of Competency, told Industrious.

The infrastructure and customer support systems that our new connection-starved reality depended on suddenly found themselves at the center of a perfect storm, and they had to act fast. If they couldn’t rise to the occasion, someone else would—the need was just too great.

However, this perfect storm didn’t sink all the ships—in fact, it provided a stark contrast between the companies that had already begun their digital transformation journey and those who had yet to take it seriously. Prior investment in data processing and intelligent workflow development proved to be the key for the companies that were able to adjust to this change and those that weren’t.

When it came to being ready to embrace the change brought about by COVID, a few telecom companies stood out:

TIM Brasil

Prior investment in digital transformation enabled TIM Brasil to utilize AI chat bots to field the massive influx of customer service requests, freeing up their relationship center staff to focus on more detailed, high-value customer needs from their new home offices.

Digital transformation enabled TIM Brasil to utilize AI chatbots to field the massive influx of customer service requests.

TIM Brasil deployed a new chat bot, powered by IBM Watson Assistant on the IBM Cloud, to respond by voice with natural language in real time. This enabled the company to address customer issues regarding plan benefits, bill payment and even more complicated issues like data hiring and unblocking lines.

“We are constantly looking for solutions that bring more convenience to customers and speed up the resolution of their demands,” Saverio Demaria, TIM Brasil’s director of customer relations, said last year. “The preference for self-service models is growing in today’s world and we seek to implement it in different channels, so that users always have the best experience.”

Since implementation, more than three million self-services have been completed and call retention without the involvement of a human agent has increased 75 percent. It’s left both customers and their reps feeling empowered.

“This type of initiative also reinforces TIM’s innovation position, allied with the main players in the technology market to offer the most modern services to users,” Demaria said.

Wind Tre S.p.A., Italy

Few had the experience Italy did during the pandemic. Hit hard and fast very early on, the country suddenly found itself in a lockdown with no time to prepare. Thankfully, Italian telecom provider Wind Tre had already been taking steps that allowed them to adapt on the fly.

Wind Tre’s agents leveraged chatbots to field low-level customer requests.

Starting in February 2019, Wind Tre began implementing IBM Watson Assistant as a multichannel virtual assistant to help customers with myriad issues. When Covid-19 raged through Italy, Wind Tre’s agents were able to quickly pivot to working from home while two separate chatbots fielded low-level customer requests in natural language via telephone and chat.

Not only were customer issues addressed during an unprecedented spike in demand, call center employees were able to take the time and space they needed to ensure their own safety and well-being, too.

“Our challenge is to improve the digital customer experience and increase internal efficiencies,” Piera Valeria Cordaro, commercial operations innovation manager at Wind Tre said when announced as a Woman Leader in AI for her work on the chatbot. “We strongly believe in automation, and as a customer-oriented organization we always seek the highest-quality standard.”

Telefónica de Argentina

The best way to handle customer issues, in addition to chatbots, may just be by preventing outages and interruptions in the first place.

Telefónica de Argentina used AI to predict and address service outages before they happened.

Telefónica de Argentina was able to use AI to preempt customer demands by predicting and addressing service outages before they happened. Working in partnership with the IBM Data Science and AI Elite team, they built a machine learning program that was able to identify potential cell tower equipment failure with at least 20 hours’ notice.

Their work had already begun in late 2019, putting them in an excellent position to quickly adapt to increased demand for connectivity during the pandemic. They can now predict failures within 24 hours and have reduced their response time to mere hours, from days.

Early investment in digital transformation paid off tremendously for telecommunications companies during the pandemic, but the model can apply across industries. Supply lines, banks, retail and more all faced similar challenges during the pandemic.

“As people started working remotely and countries went into lockdown, companies had to quickly pivot to support their customers, stay in business, and prevent themselves from getting disrupted,” said Mangla. “Digital transformation became the key.”

While the threat of viral outbreak is receding more and more each day, the demands of the post-pandemic world will continue to put unexpected pressures on customer relationship departments and service infrastructure. As seen in forward-thinking telecoms, investing in good data and good data processing is the first step in being prepared for what’s in store.