Klaus vom Hofe


Chatbots: “Service will remain human”

Chatbots on company websites are prompt in responding to messages typed in by customers and providing them with assistance. That’s how it is at Deutsche Telekom too. We’ve brought two such assistants together to have a conversation. Completely imagined – they’re not quite that advanced yet.

No chatbot looks like that: Homemade robots among themselves.

A chat among chatbots? Strange idea. We wrote it down anyway, purely fictitious, and provided with this funny picture: Of course no chatbot looks like this.

Tinka has been advising customers of Deutsche Telekom’s Austrian subsidiary, Magenta, for the last five years. She was the Group’s very first chatbot. Telekom Deutschland’s Digital Service Assistant is more recent and has started to pick up momentum. If the two could have a conversation, it might go something like this:

Tinka: So, what is it that you do?

Digital Assistant: I provide customers with advice within a matter of seconds, round the clock. Just like you.

Tinka: Now, don’t brag about it. I’ve just entered this question into your input field: How satisfied are customers with your answers? These two sentences popped up in response: We aren’t exactly sure what you mean. Has this information helped?

Digital Assistant: My human programmers were not prepared for this question and are yet to specify an answer. But be honest, do you have a suitable answer prepared? I can tell you that “real” users don’t actually ask questions like that. They want to get answers to their questions on Telekom products and services, not engage in small talk. But tell me... you did look a bit more human once upon a time, right? Until recently you were still a cartoon figure – now you’re a no-nonsense sphere on

Tinka: Well now you're getting personal. Here in Austria we’ve repositioned ourselves with a new image. Moving away from T-Mobile and toward Magenta. So I was put to the test and it turns out I was simply too human...

Digital Assistant: Wait, what?

Tinka: I know, right. I’m sure you know Deutsche Telekom’s self-binding guiding principles for artificial intelligence. Customers should always know what is going on, and whether they’re chatting to a machine or a person. I had clearly presented myself as a bot, but my appearance had confused some people as well ...

Digital Assistant: ... which is why my makers avoided doing something like that from the start. 

Tinka: You’re doing well, I hear. You’re younger than I am but are already reporting well over 100,000 requests per month.

Digital Assistant: We’ve both made a lot of progress in the last few months. More and more skills are being added. I now have access to the data Telekom has saved on the customer – provided the customer has given their consent. In terms of mobile communications, for example: I can present them with their bills or itemized bills for the last 18 months, or show them the date when their contract can next be extended.

Tinka: Yes, Deutsche Telekom’s specialists have linked us to databases and are continually feeding us with new information. Practical technologies are being added, including artificial intelligence, or AI for short.

Digital Assistant: How would you explain that to people when they ask?

Tinka: Our makers don’t want to have to keep feeding us and defining how we answer questions manually. That’s why they’ve decided to make use of AI. That way we can learn to understand customers’ everyday language – entire sentences, not just individual words. And above all, their intention. I’ll take my “memory” as an example. Thanks to AI, I can remember earlier discussions. If someone tells me that they have a problem with the battery of their Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus and then later asks me for the operating manual, I conclude: They mean the operating manual for the Galaxy S8 Plus.

Digital Assistant: Yes, the humans’ language has its quirks. That’s why I’m pleased with this new AI technology they’re calling Natural Language Understanding. It helps us understand what people mean that bit better. Without it, how are we supposed to understand that customers are talking about the bill when they type in sentences with “too expensive” or “have to pay too much”?

Tinka: We work well, many can attest to that. Customers keep coming back and recommending us to others. Just last year, I won a prize for Best DAX 30 Chatbot ...

Digital Assistant: Now you’re the one bragging ...

Tinka: That’s not true! I also know that some people are a bit skeptical about us. 

Digital Assistant: Yes, starting with the topic of data privacy. We’re well ahead in that respect. Everything at Deutsche Telekom is doubly and triply secure. There are stringent demands on data privacy and security when it comes to customer data. Each new development is put to the test. It is also always clearly defined who is responsible for us within the Deutsche Telekom Group so we don’t risk morphing into digital monsters. But that’s hard to imagine anyway.

Tinka: Others are afraid we’re going to take away their jobs or something like that. Deutsche Telekom is taking us along for the ride but they have a clear course: Service will remain human. The company wants to use us so advisers can have more time for the customers. That’s exactly why we’re working hand in hand with humans. When we are unable to answer something, we forward the text chat on to our human colleagues. It’s fun, isn’t it?

Digital Assistant: It really is. Sometimes these handovers are truly funny. One customer asked an adviser if she “was really alive” after she introduced herself. Great start to a conversation! Most are in a good mood and happy to be getting help when they get to her, she said. She praised me too. Thanks to me, she tends to get the more challenging cases.  

Tinka: That’s great!

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