7 lessons AGL’s innovation team learnt when building a chat…



Building a successful use case for emerging technologies like chatbots is less about the technology and more about your ability to embrace human-centred ways of thinking and working, AGL’s innovation manager, Sam King, says.

AGL’s innovation team has spent the past 18 months working on and launching a chatbot. The work was not only about tapping new technology in order to improve customer engagement experiences with the energy retailer, it was also ostensibly a lesson to the rest of the business on the power of human-centred design and iterative innovation.

Speaking at the IBM Think conference in Sydney, King said AGL established a dedicated innovation function in order to better unlock fresh thinking across the organisation. The division prioritises work around three pillars: Capability uplift, which is predominantly about human-centred design; embedding a discipline to encourage behavioural change once teams have exposed themselves to 21 century skillsets; and seeding a mindset and environment where it’s safe to fail, King said.

“While it is nebulous, the third pillar of activity are perhaps the most important,” he told attendees.  

“We also try and incubate how we think things should be done and by tackling high-value business problems that people in other parts of the organisation might be intimated by.”

It’s this human-centred design and iterative approach that’s quintessential when building a chatbot, King said. “It’s not like building regular digital kit. If you go to Web page, the guiderails are pretty clear. With a chatbot, you can’t cater for everything thrown at you,” he explained. “You have to take that into account.”

AGL kicked off work on its chatbot 18 months ago. Over a period of weeks, the innovation team set up chatbot to see what would happen in an approach King labelled “starting before you are ready”. The overarching ambition is solving high-volume business problems, such as transactions, and working backwards.

“We had one senior leader look us in the eye and ask why we would invest in us. Another was in digital and still didn’t think this was a viable, commercial opportunity that would be designed by customers,” King said. “But we had an inkling that things were accelerating rapidly and we needed to experiment.”

Two big lessons came off that experiment. One is that success has nothing to do with the technology, King said.

“It’s really about human-centred innovation. You need to get in front of customer as quickly as possible to ascertain if you are on the right path,” he said. “Your interactions will be different as energy retailer versus bank. So, get in as swiftly as possible to know where to go.”

Related: CMO interview: What AGL’s marketing chief is doing to embrace ambiguity

The second learning was that AGL’s innovation team needed a corresponding command panel.  This mean an operating interface which the customer operations team could sit in front of and manage thousands of chats in real time.

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