Chatbots that use artificial intelligence (AI) technology are becoming more and more common, a trend the travel industry has jumped onboard with. As the bots are developed, the companies employing them are asking important questions about how to position the technology to consumers in ways that enhance their brands. Fareportal is developing chatbots set to launch later this year. Angel Rivera, director of call center technology, addressed the initiative during a recent media lunch and subsequently spoke more in-depth with senior editor Jamie Biesiada about the ins and outs of bots.

Q: You recently said Fareportal is being careful about positioning chatbots so they don't become a barrier to customers. I think that's something a lot of people in the industry are struggling with right now when it comes to consumer-facing AI. Do you agree?

Angel Rivera
Angel Rivera

A: Yes, we agree. In fact, not falling into that trap will be a continuous challenge.

Q: How are you trying to avoid creating a barrier?

A: We want our interactions with our customers to be as natural as possible. With the technology that is currently available, we believe the best way to do this is by leveraging a hybrid approach where the bot is not looking to replace our travel agents, but simply assist them. In other words, customer interactions will still involve our travel agents. Even as the AI learns over time, we will continue to monitor customer interactions and solicit their feedback.

Q: Will you let a customer know when they're talking to a computer versus a human agent?

A: If a customer asks, we intend to have the chatbot respond with something like, "I am a computer which is assisted by humans." If the customer requests specifically to speak with a human, then we would accommodate by transferring the conversation to a live agent.

Q: Outside of a customer's request, at what point in a chat would you switch from computer to human? And will the customer be aware of the switch?

A: We do not intend for there to be a hard switch, hence the hybrid approach mentioned above. Ideally, the customer would never know when a response is from a human versus a bot. Some key points to keep in mind:

One, given the asynchronous nature of many of the messaging platforms available to our customers, the dialog can continue over long periods of time. Therefore, there could potentially be multiple agents interacting with a customer regarding a single reservation.

Two, the AI needs to learn to mimic our natural language. So, once we have implemented the technology, as our travel agents respond to our customers, the AI will learn from this dialog, enabling the level of automation to increase over time.

Three, there are specific Fareportal programs that the AI will need to access for the process to become fully automated. Eventually, we will need to integrate the AI technology with all of those programs to further empower the bots.

Q: Many think AI's most useful applications in travel today are those when you marry a human with AI tech, essentially making the human "smarter." Do you think that's the case? Is that why you're developing your chatbots the way you are?

A: Yes. There are several reasons why, but particularly with a complex transaction like flight bookings, the technology is just not advanced enough today to provide a fully automated interaction while still providing a world-class customer experience. That, of course, will change as the AI becomes more sophisticated, which is why we view this integration more as a process evolution.

Q: Do you think consumers would rather chat with a human or a bot?

A: I think that will ultimately depend on how good the customer experience is. Our focus is to make sure our customers are completely satisfied. If they are helped quickly and their purpose for contacting us is addressed efficiently, I don't think they will have a reason to dwell on whether or not they were helped by a human.

Q: What does the future look like with bots at Fareportal?

A: I believe automation is here to stay. Balancing that while maintaining a great customer experience will be a bit of an art. I envision a future where AI continues to advance to the point where some customer interactions will be handled end to end by bots. I also see AI ultimately being leveraged for our voice channel. For example, our traditional static Interactive Voice Responses would leverage this same AI to provide a consistent and personalized experience and even to potentially integrate with the growing number of voice-based personal assistants on the market. This would also include AI enabling our websites and mobile apps, as well.

That said, for a company that is committed to providing exceptional customer service, a human touch will always have a place in our customer experience.

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