To increase its innovation capacity, health insurance company VGZ in the Netherlands has had an innovation team in place between IT and the business since 2012. Stefan Visser (data catalyst and innovation architect) and Niels Scheurleer (project manager) talk about how this team works and about the most recent innovation project: voicebot Sam. Sam now handles over a thousand calls a week. The next step: linking the voicebot to speech routing.
VGZ’s innovation team explores the application possibilities of new technology. Together with the business, the team sets up experiments based on concrete and relevant business issues. Stefan Visser: “Initially, we did that with external parties, but since 2016 the team has been expanded to include a project manager, business analysts and developers, enabling us to develop our own products. Last year the team was further expanded with data-scientists.”
Niels Scheurleer: “The team now consists of almost 20 people. Sometimes we use external capacity – for example, when we need developers with specific skills. For the voicebot we have worked with the voice specialists Telecats and Readspeaker.”
How the team works
Scheurleer explains why an innovation team can work well in a large organization. “The business often has an idea of which technology applications are ‘hot’. But translating these into concrete applications is difficult. In addition, IT and the business are preoccupied with the issues of the day, leaving little or no time to think about innovation. Often, there are all kinds of current affairs that take priority.
Visser: “We also see it as our role to cut through technology hype. Furthermore, the IT function is focused on continuity – making sure everything keeps working. That is why they were seen as reactive by the organization. With the innovation team, a proactive role has been added. This also prevents the business from opting for solutions and expecting IT to ‘just implement them’. That is not conducive to a stable IT architecture.
No immediate financial pressure
Uniquely, the innovation team at VGZ has an ample budget. “This means that innovations do not directly affect the business’ budget,” Visser says. “That makes it easier to get the business on board. We can also deliver a prototype quickly. This way, the business can try out new applications without having to make investments. Of course, we are expected to deliver added value.” Only when an innovation is fully ready to be transferred it enters the business unit’s budget.
Innovation team success
Customer contact innovations are often aimed at saving costs. Demonstrating added value is also sometimes difficult. When business cases are not closed, the vision of the technology, for example, can be the deciding factor to go ahead after all, according to the two gentlemen. In addition, you have to battle with legacy, caused by technology choices from the past. For many innovations in customer contact, for example, good access to data is a prerequisite. Visser explains that VGZ’s innovation team can be successful because the IT landscape is generally in good order: “There is an extensive layer of middleware including a good API platform that allows us to unlock information from back-office systems. In addition, we exclusively develop cloud native solutions, where initially you don’t have to take much into account the rules that apply to the regular IT landscape.”
Over to the chatbot
The choice for a chatbot, now already five years ago, is partly the result of two other considerations by VGZ. The health insurer wanted to increase the accessibility outside office hours and stop the laborious e-mail channel. VGZ first sought the cooperation with an innovation partner. In the end, VGZ decided to stop working with this partner, because development, scalability and management required too much investment in resources. Visser: “Our developers then built a completely new chatbot platform themselves. After six months, we took the chatbot into production and then transferred it to a new team for management and further development.”
24×7 customer satisfaction
As mentioned, sometimes the business case turns out differently than expected. VGZ’s chatbot did not lead to a reduction in the telephone channel, Visser says. Nevertheless, the management wanted to go ahead. Visser explains the reason: “We have four million customers and on average, every customer calls once a year. About 60 percent of these contacts are relatively simple in nature. We would prefer to automate the questions that add little or no value and make them part of our 24×7 service, provided that customer satisfaction remains high. We also deal with large amounts of complicated questions – think of people who have been to several hospitals and ask for a second opinion. In this kind of contact, empathy is necessary and automation not a solution.”
“In the dialogue with the chatbot, you can take into account cases of doubt: when it becomes difficult for the chatbot, the conversation should be passed on to a client advisor. Furthermore, you have to consider the application of a chatbot as a learning curve,” Scheurleer says. “If customers ask for things on the phone that can also be found on the website, there may very well be another question behind that apparently simple question. You have to be thoughtful about this.”
From chatbot to voicebot
Meanwhile, the chatbot of VGZ is a success. In 2020, 582,000 customer calls were completed, almost three times as many as in 2019. And the chatbot gets an NPS of +46 from customers. The success of the chatbot got the innovation team thinking: why not deploy the bot within the telephone channel? The idea for the voicebot was born.
Telecats was already on board at VGZ as a result of an initiative by the business to carry out a pilot on speech routing – which involves intent recognition based on the conversion of ‘speech to text’. That pilot coincided with organizing the customer service teams differently, namely in self-organizing circles focused on specific subjects. “To make our voicebot work, we needed both transcriptions of spoken text and a speech generator that converts text into speech. How do you answer a telephone customer query with artificial speech? That’s how the innovation team came into contact with Telecats.”
Voicebot Sam with speech technology from Telecats
The voicebot named Sam now handles around a thousand calls a week. Sam listens with the speech recognition of Telecats and speaks on the basis of (Text-To-Speech) technology from Readspeaker, a Telecats partner. Just like an client advisor, Sam is able to provide personalized service on a number of topics. Scheurleer explains: “We know who the customer is, because we ask for the customer number and we perform an authentication by sending a code to the customer’s phone. When Sam, our digital assistant, takes the call, he already knows what it is about, and who he is talking to.”
Visser: “We want to direct the customer to the right solution as quickly as possible. With speech recognition, intelligent routing becomes possible. This means that, depending on the customer and the customer’s needs, you can decide whether a call should be handled by the voicebot or by an advisor.
Visser explains that the voicebot is active in two different application areas: information provision and mutations. “In the second category, customers can now ask questions and arrange matters concerning the health insurance card, payment arrangements and payment of the excess in instalments. With VGZ’s API platform, Sam can use a question about an invoice to check in back office systems whether there is a payment delay and what the cause is; but he can also immediately propose a payment scheme and confirm this to the customer by e-mail. Speech routing should thereby considerably improve the determination of intent (“tell us what you are calling about”) and the routing of the contact,” Visser says.
VGZ takes into account that customers have to get used to this way of interacting and that dealing with a voicebot is not easy or obvious for everyone. VGZ asks for the Customer Effort Score (CES – the lower, the less effort) and Sam’s CES now averages a 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, better than the regular chatbot which scores around 2.5.
Coöperatie VGZ carries out health insurance for various brands. The main brand is VGZ. There are nine other brands and labels: Bewuzt, IZA, IZZ, UMC, UnitedConsumers, Univé, Zekur, SZVK and Zorgzaam. In total, the cooperative insures about 4 million customers. VGZ employs more than 1,800 people. It achieves a turnover of almost EUR 12 billion (2019).