TOBi or Not TOBi

Vodafone Taps Chat Bot to Bolster Customer Care

Vodafone_2017_symbol_lVodafone’s Future Ready event last week, attended by CCS Insight, pointed to better times ahead for the embattled operator, which has endured a torrid recent period in its home market.

We detected much more of a buzz around the operator’s Newbury campus than in recent years and these positive vibes extended to an upbeat set of presentations, led by CEO Nick Jeffery, who confidently declared that the operator “has got its mojo back”.

But Vodafone also showed plenty of humility and deserves credit for not hiding behind some of its much-publicised challenges. Its Achilles heel has been customer care, so it was no surprise that this formed a leading focus of the event.

Director of digital and commercial operations, Neil Blagden, highlighted Vodafone’s significant investment in voice biometrics, reskilling front-line agents and in its chat bot, TOBi.

Vodafone has big ambitions for TOBi, which at first was only able to answer basic customer enquiries before having to hand over to a human. Now the virtual agent can respond to 32 different types of request and sell SIM-only deals as well as mobile phones. The next step is to add voice-based capabilities, and the long-term goal is to incorporate artificial intelligence to enable recommendations and anticipate queries.

Vodafone envisages the chat bot playing a far wider role in interacting with customers and staff, a process that it calls “Tobification”. This will see the bot deployed within Vodafone’s apps, in stores (for example, to enable pay-as-you-go top-up), alongside sales agents and within HR and IT functions. Initially developed for the UK, it’s also being rolled out into other Vodafone markets.

Inevitably, TOBi’s role as a potential replacement for the humble human being was high on the agenda. Vodafone needs to tread carefully in this area in light of the steep job cuts it made to its UK business in 2017. Mr Blagden said that although TOBi will eventually be able to handle all kinds of enquiry, the operator doesn’t wish for it to do so. There will always be an agent to speak to, he promised.

Tellingly, though, Vodafone has already begun to reskill some agents to become coders and artificial intelligence developers, offering them the opportunity to take a 16-week training course and switch career. The company believes that taking employees from the front line could give it an edge because they already know Vodafone’s systems and values. Staff who decide not to take this path, are likely to take on more-specialised roles.

In a packed agenda, Vodafone also gave an update on its 5G plans. Chief technology officer, Scott Petty, said that trials will shortly begin in seven UK cities, before commercial switch-on in 2019. Notably, he said that launch wouldn’t just be restricted to high-density urban areas: Cornwall and the Lake District will also receive initial 5G coverage as Vodafone seeks to validate technologies such as fixed wireless access and use of the Internet of things in agriculture. Vodafone wowed the audience with a hugely impressive demonstration of a holographic call between its Newbury headquarters and MediaCityUK in Manchester, which will be one the first cities in the country using 5G technology.

Among a host of other updates, Vodafone outlined a new deal with PayPal to enable customers of its youth-focussed brand Voxi to buy smartphones; a self-optimising tariff that automatically moves business customers to the most cost-effective plan; a partnership with Scottish Power for its NB-IoT network; a mobile Wi-Fi device called Gigacube to offer instant connectivity to companies; and updates to its V by Vodafone service.

Of course, evidence of a turnaround in any business is best illustrated through financial performance and Vodafone’s latest results prove that plenty of work remains (see Instant Insight: Vodafone Results, Fiscal 1Q18/19). But with churn falling, customer satisfaction at record levels and market share gains being made in the consumer and enterprise segments, Vodafone appears to have its tail up in its home market at last.