Aflac learns important lessons about artificial intelligence and people

Insurer deploys chatbots to boost customer satisfaction, but the human touch is still vital.

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There's a big push among companies to adopt artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as chatbots. But in some cases organizations are finding that they still need the human touch in addition to automation when providing support to customers.

Insurance provider Aflac provides a good example. The company launched chatbots in 2017 through the Facebook Messenger platform, with the primary goal of providing a way for consumers to access benefits information.

"Our research consistently shows that most consumers feel unsure during health insurance open enrollment period, and frequently make decisions about their benefits without a complete knowledge of their overall plan," said Keith Farley, vice president of innovation at Aflac.

In addition to delivering better customer experience, the company wanted to cut costs by reducing call center volume and seeing better overall accuracy in responses.

While the initial launch was moderately successful, the success was temporary and chatbot volume quickly dropped. "We learned this wasn't a natural thing people wanted to do," Farley said. "Consumers' questions are very personal, and we were seeing high percentages of questions being answered with an 'I don't know' response."

Realizing it needed to start over, Aflac put humans back in charge -- using chatbots and robotic process automation (RPA) to help them -- and increased the number of consumer questions that could be answered from just over 500 to an unlimited number based on the team's knowledge. The company also added a mobile app that feature human-to-human interaction.

"Our employees can answer questions using an automated, combined log of questions and answers received through the call center, email, or the [mobile] app," Farley said.

The company uses RPA to mimic and repeat activities humans typically perform. Some 20 software bots perform activities such as paying claims and processing invoices.

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"If you talk to people in the working area, most bots are viewed as their own personal assistants," Farley said. "We will continue to grow the program over the next few years, because it allows us to upskill employees for their benefit and the company's benefit in delivering even stronger customer focus."

Aflac has seen a higher level of satisfaction from customers using web chat versus phone, and the company has reduced its call center volume during peak times. "This tells us that we got it right the second time around, because we learned from our initial mistakes," Farley said.

From an employee perspective, the biggest benefit from AI is that it frees up the time spent doing mundane tasks and allows them to perform higher-level work. "Activities that humans are naturally good at can't be automated," Farley said. Examples of this include being empathetic with customers, building relationships, and using creative thinking to solve complex problems, he said.

Among the key lessons learned for the company from the deployment are the need to know what customers want before jumping into using AI or any new technology for that matter; and the importance of being willing to take risks and not be afraid to fail."We were able to quickly learn from our initial disappointment with chat, restart, and ultimately deliver a highly successful solution that increased customer satisfaction," Farley said.