16 August 2019

    Drew Hook

    TOBI the chatbot: What makes him tick?

    We spoke with Ryno Booyens, Portfolio Manager/Product for Chatbots at Vodacom, to find out what goes on 'under the hood' of TOBi theĀ chatbot.

    TOBi is a chatbot and Vodacom’s newest self-service team member. He has been created using the latest Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology and has been designed to give you a conversational experience that helps you directly solve issues wherever you are. Using state-of-the-art machine learning, TOBi can respond and interact with you in a one-on-one chat-like experience and assist you with a number of basic customer queries. We spoke with Ryno Booyens, Portfolio Manager/Product for Chatbots at Vodacom, to find out what goes on 'under the hood' of TOBi the chatbot.

    Tell us about the background of TOBi. Why did Vodacom decide on a chatbot?

    TOBi was originally launched in 2018 as an SMS channel. Through the latest advances in machine learning, TOBi is able to respond and interact with customers in a one-on-one chat-like experience and assist with a number of basic customer queries.

    TOBi's ultimate goal is to make customer engagement simpler and hassle-free. He has been developed to empower our customers with quick and easy access to information wherever and whenever they are in need, essentially a supplementary channel for customers who want to communicate with Vodacom at any time of the day. TOBi’s role at Vodacom is to automate linear responses while allowing our consultants at the call centre to deal with more complicated queries.

    Can you explain a bit about the ‘technical how’ of creating a chatbot?

    When developing TOBi, we stuck with the Vodacom motto of ‘customer first’. We ask ourselves 'what do customers want' and how can we make interactions with TOBI easier. That means charting the conversation journey that customers go on when interacting with TOBi. The first step in this process is to differentiate a linear conversation that can be automated with a chatbot or something more complicated that requires the customer to speak to a consultant. 

    TOBi's interface links to a centralised brain, where our Neural Network team monitor all interactions and examine the various questions that are put forward to the bot. Essentially they are making sure that TOBi is correctly understanding the questions that are placed to it and is responding in a way that is helpful to the customer. In this way, the team is able to pinpoint at which point the conversation needs to be handed over to a human consultant to assist the customer further. 


    What were the challenges faced when designing TOBi?

    The South African market is unique in that we have 11 official languages. And even with English, which TOBi communicates in, we still have to account for the differences in the way people say things. So we need to understand how a certain customer may phrase a certain request, the specific terms they may use and their own particular vernacular. 

    Chatbots are a new technology, which is growing exponentially every day. The challenge here is to remain up to date with the current trends and to ensure that the tech we are working on is not lagging behind the global standard. We are fully committed to ensuring that TOBi remains a world-class bot. 

    Finally, there is the issue of trust. Are customers comfortable with the idea of communicating with an AI? We have to ensure that people understand who and what TOBi is, along with his capabilities. Essentially we have to make sure that customers trust the bot as much as they would a person. 

    Chatbots are only the tip of the iceberg, so what does that mean for the future? Why is this technology so important and what is the potential, for Vodacom and the world?

    We are extremely excited about the future of TOBi, both the technical advances and the challenges ahead. As TOBi is still a 'young bot', his potential to learn and grow is unlimited. The benefit of TOBi is that he is always available to help, 24/7. This is especially convenient if you need information quickly or when 'after hours' support is not available. Instead of phoning the call centre and having to wait for a consultant to help you, try talking to TOBi to solve your query.

    We are fully committed to bringing this new technology to Vodacom customers and are looking forward to TOBi's advances in the months and years ahead.

    Drew Hook