Sam, VGZ’s successful chatbot, has expanded into new territory: besides text (web chats), it can now also handle speech. And to make sure it really understands what the customer is asking, VGZ has switched from IVR to routing based on speech recognition, also known as speech routing.
Sam the chatbot has become a valuable team member of the customer contact department at Coöperatie VGZ’s (VGZ; see also the info box). For several years now, Sam has been helping policyholders with relatively simple questions that can be answered on the website, for example, notifying VGZ of a change of address, submitting a claim or finding out your excess.
This automated method of handling customer queries went down so well that, in 2020, VGZ’s innovation team started developing a voicebot. Although the chatbot and the voicebot utilise the same system that recognises text-based queries, including customer intent, and responds with a solution, the input they had to work with was worlds apart: the chatbot responds to questions that a policyholder types in, whereas the initial voicebot pilots were based on IVR, i.e., they were not based on exactly what was said, but on an option keyed into the dial pad, which then determined what the voicebot should do next.
IVR: the jury’s still out
In the world of customer interaction, IVR is often a subject of debate. In terms of customer friendliness, the routing tool leaves much to be desired: IVR forces the caller to listen to and remember a list of presented options and then to choose one, which sometimes has nothing, or very little, to do with their actual question. And sometimes there are simply too many options – and listening to all those options takes some time as well.
VGZ also started to run up against the limitations of IVR, according to Misha van Wijmeren, product owner for channel routing at VGZ: ‘The various circles (see box) all had their own routing requirements, so the keypad-based IVR was in danger of becoming rather confusing. You also had the increased risk of circles having to redirect customers to other circles in order to reach the right team.’
Coöperatie VGZ has a clear vision for its communication with customers. The company is particularly keen to invest in interactions that add value for the organisation, employees and policyholders. In doing so, it is committed to helping customers, wherever possible, in a single channel during a contact moment. Another element of this vision centres around working in multidisciplinary circles: teams in which all competences are brought together to help a customer from start to finish. Circles may be assigned a specific target group, such as ‘new customers during their first ten months’. Customers who are recognised and who – based on intent – fall into this target group are then routed to this circle.
Implementing speech routing
To address the concern of an increasingly complex IVR, VGZ set its sights on routing based on speech recognition. Here, the caller is asked to say their question out loud, so the call can then be routed to the right circle.
Michel Boedeltje, product owner of speech & dialogues at Telecats, explains: ‘Speech routing generates information that you can use to pinpoint what the customer is calling about much more accurately than you can with IVR. If necessary, you can even ask a follow-up question to help clarify the customer’s question. It’s a much more sophisticated approach to routing.’
Voicebot operates based on chatbot knowledge
For speech routing to be able to communicate with the voicebot, Telecats has developed an interface that converts what the customer has said to the voicebot into text. Based on that input, the chatbot is asked to provide a response in text format, which is then converted back to speech and offered to the voicebot. This might be a response or another question.
For this process, timing is critical for the structure of the technology; not only does it need to be able to recognise and convert what the caller is saying in near real-time, but the chatbot’s response also has to be transmitted back to the voicebot promptly via text-to-speech. On top of that, Sam the voicebot needs to know how long to wait for a spoken response before speaking again.
‘The voicebot waits just under two seconds for the customer to speak’, says Boedeltje. ‘The voicebot also listens to what is being said for a maximum of 15 seconds. That length of time has been shown in practice to be long enough for the caller to answer the question. Also, anything longer than 15 seconds of input actually generates too much information; it’s not possible to process all of that effectively.’
Route to an employee or to a bot?
VGZ’s sophisticated routing system also involves choosing whether the query should be dealt with by an employee from the most appropriate circle, or by the voicebot. Options also include sending an SMS that contains a dynamic link or sending an SMS and routing to an employee. If an employee is selected, they are connected to the call, and the customer’s details and the recorded question are displayed on their screen. If the voicebot is selected, the customer engages with the bot.
Van Wijmeren: ‘In April 2022, we started piloting and evaluating SMS as a voice-routing response among 100 members, primarily for questions that related to arranging care for another person. Feedback was positive, so a month later we started sending out SMSs with dynamic links so that customers could change their account numbers online, in combination with a “hang up”.’
The voicebot can assist customers in several ways – through a dialogue, for example, or by sending a link to a page on the website where they can find all the information they need. That might be an answer to their question, or a link to a self-service page in the VGZ app to consult or update personal information. Members who have not yet installed the VGZ app on their smartphone are directed to the app store via the same (therefore: dynamic) link.
Classify, classify, classify
The biggest challenge in this process is classifying a whole raft of customer questions into the right intents; not only do these have to be recognised by the speech recognition tool, but they also have to dovetail well with the target groups of the various circles. The teams have therefore been closely involved in this phase and will continue to play a role beyond that, says Mark Janssen, chapter lead of customer dialogue at VGZ. ‘If a topic has not yet been included in the open-question speech recognition tool, but is starting to generate a lot of traffic, the employees are usually the ones to flag it up. If we don’t have a good answer for it yet, the question is passed on to our knowledge management specialists. They then also look at the best way to handle the question.’
Keeping the ‘other’ category as small as possible
In the autumn of 2021 – just before the new premiums were announced and policyholders were able to switch insurance companies – VGZ deactivated IVR and ran all calls through speech routing. VGZ monitors the various data streams related to speech routing in near real-time and analyses them in Power BI. By using near real-time insights based on NLP, for example in the form of a word cloud, the team can even zoom in on recorded questions. In turn, VGZ is then able to respond to developments even faster.
Topics that are difficult to pigeonhole end up in an ‘other’ category, and classifying everything that ends up here is an ongoing process. Nadine Glas, who in her role as head of the Telecats speech lab is responsible for creating speech models and classifications, explains: ‘A new intent needs to be beneficial to the organisation and it should be possible to assign it to a circle. If we want to be able to clearly distinguish it from other intents, we need to have enough different examples available.’
Van Wijmeren: ‘In the early days, we used to add these kinds of calls to the algorithm manually. We’ve now automated that process more by exporting entries from the ‘other’ category and applying NLP to find logical word combinations.’
Work on fine-tuning the speech routing system was largely completed in January 2022. Janssen claims that 90% of calls are now classified correctly. ‘What we’re working on now is measuring and analysing the results: we expect that fewer calls will be rerouted and that the average call duration will be shorter. Early measurements suggest that we’re on the right track when it comes to customer satisfaction. Another bonus is that the WFM team, which monitors the metrics and content of customer interactions, is able to keep track of things much more effectively.’
The next step for summer 2022: roll-out to other brands
Everything that had been done for VGZ’s main brand in early 2022 could, of course, also be rolled out to VGZ’s other brands, such as Univé Zorg, Zekur, UMC Zorgverzekering, IZA, IZZ Zorgverzekering and Zorgzaam. Last summer, almost all labels switched from IVR to voice routing: on average, one label made the switch every month.
It was a deliberate decision to start with the largest label first and then roll out to the smaller brands if successful. VGZ’s innovation team focuses its efforts on the biggest brand, since this is where you’ll find the widest range of policyholders and queries, explains Davey Vogel, product owner for digital assistance at VGZ. ‘If you were to start with a more digital brand, the target group wouldn’t be as broad or as representative. We initially used a load balancer so that we could start with small call volumes to gather experiences from all target groups.’
Van Wijmeren adds: ‘The roll-out to other labels mainly involves brand-specific jargon, such as the names of insurance packages. And obviously the name of the brand itself also needs to be changed. You also need to allow plenty of time to involve all stakeholders – so managers, employees and customers – in the official launch.’
VGZ has since handled one million calls via speech routing. The forecast for next year is that all calls for all brands – some four million – will be handled via speech routing. That figure may turn out to be smaller, as the new approach should eventually lead to fewer calls and increased use of the digital self-service portals. VGZ has also noticed that the new method is making better use of employees’ skills. Janssen: ‘They are receiving more in-depth questions from customers, which makes their work more challenging.’
Janssen also has a clear vision on the next phase of the journey. ‘One of the things we want to do is to link the chatbot content to the knowledge management system, so that we can make things even easier for employees. So, we’ll be able to say: for this customer profile and for this question, this is the most suitable answer for delivering guaranteed solutions. Telecats factored this into one of its initial PoCs right at the very beginning. Beyond that, I’m sure there will be new intents to discover.’
About VGZ – Coöperatie VGZ manages health insurance policies for several brands. Besides the main brand, VGZ, there are nine other brands and labels: VGZ Bewuzt, IZA, IZZ, UMC, Univé, Zekur and Zorgzaam. Altogether, the cooperative insures around 4.22 million customers. VGZ employs over 1,800 staff.
Text: Erik Bouwer (Ziptone)