How Vodafone digitally reinvented its call centers with AI

An AI-powered virtual agent is transforming customer experience

By | 4 minute read | November 22, 2019

“I had so many issues setting up my broadband that I called my provider six different times for support,” said Utpal Mangla. Each time, the support agent put him on hold. Each time, his calls were eventually dropped without any sort of resolution.

Call centers in the telecommunications industry are notorious for long hold times, poor customer service, and high customer churn. Other industries—airline/travel, financial, insurance, and retail—have similar issues.

In fact, any enterprise with a call center today faces high cost-per-contact and training resources, high average handle time, low first-call resolution, high employee attrition rates.

One of the most crucial issues for call centers is maintaining a high level of knowledge for customer care agents, especially given their high churn rate. Most call centers equip agents with large, 1000-page instructional binders. The manual process is frustrating for both customers and agents.

That’s why Mangla, IBM TME VP, believes that any company that chooses an online business model will have a greater need for cognitive customer care/AI in the future. Companies will need to transform their customers’ digital experience to remain competitive with other businesses.

Mangla focuses on Watson AI innovations for clients worldwide. In 2017, his team set—and reached—a goal of making TME Industry Watson solutions accessible to 1 billion people by 2018. His team is now at the forefront of implementing AI solutions for global enterprises by piloting use cases, deploying, scaling and replicating B2B/ B2C solutions.

“AI is transforming the call center,” Mangla said. “The whole concept of a ‘call center’ will automate. So this solution will remove the concept of calling directly into call centers. Mobile phones and digital tools will provide support on predictive intents before a call is even needed.”

With Watson, 1000-page binders are obsolete. A company’s incident response information is completely digitized, allowing agents do their jobs more effectively. And the solution will become better with time, as it constantly learns from every customer interaction.

According to a recent McKinsey study, the most innovative companies will enable a high-quality, omnichannel customer-centric experience across key journeys. Chatbots will drastically increase operational efficiency and human agents’ effectiveness. Blended human-bot chat can double productivity while reducing cost by 50 percent.

UK-based Vodafone, one of the world’s leading telecoms and technology service providers, serves over 600 million customers. Its executive leadership team prioritized a digitally transformed customer experience as a core business imperative, stipulating that customer satisfaction and retention were not just a nicety, but a necessity.

Vodafone teamed up with IBM to deploy an AI-powered virtual agent to reinvent its customer experience.

To improve customer experience, IBM put AI/Analytics into Vodafone’s customer operations. Virtual agents are in both the customer- and agent-facing sides, and continuously update the solution based on customer feedback and initial intents.

“While it can take a long time for digital transformation projects to come to fruition, the results are worth it,” said Iris Meijer, Vodafone CMO. “Our chatbot TOBi has helped 3.4 million UK customers this financial year. Multiply this across the 11 markets where TOBi operates and you can get a sense of how such digital technologies provide the instant, accurate and helpful service that we all demand.”


TOBi is trained on Vodafone’s own body of knowledge, so it understands and recognizes different types of customer queries. While the past rule-based customer care systems stuck to scripts, TOBi learns from every single customer interaction and gets better with time. TOBi is resolving 70 percent of all customer inquiries and is expected to improve with time. The added cost savings bonus for Vodafone is a 70 percent reduction in cost per chat.

This ability to have humans and intelligent machines working in unison is a central tenet of Vodafone’s effort to digitally reinvent its customer experience—and, more broadly, its digital transformation journey.

Those who detest long hold times can rejoice in knowing that by 2020, 85 percent of all customer interactions will be handled without a human agent, according to Gartner Predicts.

Another imperative to a company’s success is growing employee satisfaction. By allowing human agents to focus on high value tasks while machines handle repetitive tasks, Watson helps employees feel more valued and needed.

People who work in customer service know that a large percentage of all questions cluster into a series of repeating issues that don’t necessarily require long troubleshooting. The time spent answering trivial or mundane questions can be stressful and result in high attrition among customer support agents.

At Vodafone, agents can now tackle more intellectually challenging questions, collect more information to make decisions, focus on higher-value exceptional cases, and spend more time with customers.

With Watson, Vodafone has taken yet another step to reap the benefits of its continuous digital transformation efforts. And the deployment of AI-powered assistants to the frontlines of customer service is helping on all fronts: happier customers, more satisfied employees, and a better enterprise.