By David Baum
India is now the world’s largest democracy and its fastest- growing major economy, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, buoyed by a growing middle class with an insatiable appetite for modern conveniences. Bajaj Electricals, an electrical equipment manufacturer of fans, lighting systems, and other small appliances, is based in Mumbai and is ramping up its manufacturing capacity to meet the demands of hundreds of millions of Indian citizens—and transforming its information systems to create more-compelling customer experiences.
As business accelerates and customer inquiries outstrip the abilities of its busy call center agents, Bajaj Electricals is enlisting a new type of workforce to meet customer demands: personal assistants known as chatbots, which are intelligent software programs that have been trained to carry on conversations via text or voice. The company recently launched a chatbot channel that allows customers to report problems with an appliance, request a demo, or schedule an appointment with a technician for installation. This new channel is not only fielding a growing volume of customer service requests; it’s also helping Bajaj Electricals fulfill a much loftier goal: increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty.
“We have begun by capturing consumer data, and now we wish to better engage with customers and improve their experience through an omnichannel perspective,” explains Pratap Gharge, executive vice president and CIO at Bajaj Electricals.
Customers can send text messages to the chatbot channel, Gharge explains, and they will soon be able to interact via voice calls as well. It’s all part of an enterprisewide digital transformation that includes social media listening, social media analytics, cloud migrations, mobility, AI, IoT, and chat. Gharge believes these evolving technologies will play an increasingly important role as the company transitions into emerging markets for monument lighting, stadium lighting, electric transmission, and IoT products such as smart streetlights and smart air coolers.
As the chatbot learns from experience and becomes more intelligent, the call center agent load will go down because the bot can understand and solve the problems by interacting with customers directly.”–Sinha Rajnish, Chief Digital Officer, Bajaj Electricals
Effectively meeting customer demands in these new markets necessitates an equally ambitious transformation of the consumer experience, which is why Bajaj is expanding the potential channels for interaction. Sinha Rajnish, chief digital officer at Bajaj Electricals, predicts that by the end of the year, at least 10% of Bajaj Electricals’ approximately 200,000 monthly repair inquiries, which call center agents currently handle, will be automatically fielded by chatbots, leveraging the principles of conversational AI. “We have around 100 team members in that call center right now, so that would save us 10 full-time resources,” he estimates. “As the chatbot learns from experience and becomes more intelligent, the call center agent load will go down because the bot can understand and solve the problems by interacting with customers directly.”
Not so long ago, most businesses fielded customer service requests via phone, email, and web forms, and each communication required a personal response. Today more and more people use messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Slack, and SMS to connect with the companies with which they do business—adding a new and pervasive channel to the customer experience mix. However, as AI, machine learning, and natural-language-processing technologies become more sophisticated, it’s not always a real person on the other end of the line. Often, it’s a chatbot.
Chatbots can assist with everything from shopping to navigation, as well as offer insight into routine business activities such as customer service and human capital management. By accessing data from a knowledgebase, these intelligent systems can discover patterns in consumer and business data and then make recommendations based on contextual insights. Thanks to embedded machine-learning technology, the more people interact with these online assistants, the more accurate, valuable, and personalized their responses become.
While voice-activated digital assistants such as Alexa and Siri attempt to respond to every type of request, businesses such as Bajaj Electricals use chatbots within circumscribed domains to solve very specific problems.
You don’t have to be a data scientist or an AI expert to create these chatbot services. Our tools are designed to allow your average IT person to develop new functionality very quickly.”–Carlos Chang, Senior Principal Product Marketing Director, Oracle
“Attempting to solve anything and everything is a difficult task—and very hard to perfect—as anybody who has interacted with these intelligent personal assistants can attest,” points out Carlos Chang, senior principal product marketing director at Oracle. “Oracle’s focus is to provide chatbot technology that can solve problems to deal with particular business challenges; call it ‘enterprise AI,’ where the focus of the chatbot is on meeting the specific needs of the business.”
Bajaj Electricals used the Bot Builder functionality in Oracle Mobile Cloud Enterprise to develop a prototype for its new chat channel in just two weeks. The prototype includes a dialogue engine to formulate questions that customers are likely to ask and machine-learning capabilities to help the bot refine its responses. “We were looking for a chatbot platform that can be integrated seamlessly with our established business applications,” Rajnish explains. “That’s why we picked Oracle. Not much coding is needed, except the back-end integration that we did with our ERP [enterprise resource planning] system. The Oracle chatbot platform is cloud-based, so it is fairly easy to set up and configure.”
Location: Mumbai, India
Industry: Manufacturing, consumer products
Revenue: US$700 million (2017 to 2018)
Oracle products: Oracle Mobile Cloud Enterprise; Oracle Application Container Cloud; Oracle E-Business Suite; Siebel CRM; Oracle Database; Oracle SOA Suite; Oracle Business Intelligence; Oracle Planning and Budgeting Cloud Service; Oracle’s SPARC T-3, T-4, T-5, and T-7 servers
Length of tenure: 33 years
Education: BS (chemistry and math), DCS, MBA operation research
Personal quote/mantra: “Consumer-centric digital transformations can help companies get to know consumers, enhance their experiences, and increase engagement with them. You have to focus on consumers to survive in today’s digitally driven economy.”
Of course, chatbot apps can’t exist in a vacuum. To be truly useful, they must be tied to enterprise applications and systems of record including HR, customer relationship management (CRM), sales force automation, and ERP (see sidebar). According to Chang, Oracle Mobile Cloud makes it easy for developers to extract data from these enterprise systems via microservices. As each chat channel matures, developers can create bot-to-human “handoffs” to route information to other information systems, as well as to human agents, complete with the context of all interactions to date. “You don’t have to be a data scientist or an AI expert to create these chatbot services,” Chang says. “Our tools are designed to allow your average IT person to develop new functionality very quickly.”
Soon, Bajaj Electricals will integrate its new chat channel with Facebook Messenger to give users an alternative mode of access, as well as create additional external-facing chatbots to greet customers and help them use fans, lighting systems, and other products. “In the realm of consumer care, we are working on chatbots to assist with installations, demonstrations, and a self-service maintenance bot that leverages the product and service information in our knowledgebase,” Rajnish says. He and his team also plan to deploy a bot to assist with the sale of premium products such as Bajaj IoT coolers and Bajaj Platini kitchen ranges. Based on keywords, it will determine what prospective customers are looking for and present the relevant personalized information from the ecommerce catalog.
Bajaj Electricals plans to create chatbots to assist with internal operations as well. For example, in the HR arena, bots can field employee questions about benefits, as well as help automate onboarding processes. With a workforce of 3,000-plus employees in 40 locations, the HR team must continually answer questions about vacation status, policies, benefits, Mediclaim requests, and many other things. “Chatbot technology can field these questions 24/7,” Rajnish says. “It will expand the capabilities of our HR team and give us round-the-clock coverage, while allowing our HR professionals to focus on other core HR-related work.” He expects a 10% to 20% reduction in calls.
Bajaj Electricals’ digital leaders also plan to use chatbot technology to enhance the company’s indoor lighting and building solutions, which are currently integrated with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, as well as to facilitate voice interactions with other types of IoT appliances and lighting systems. Still other chatbots applications could one day help customers with billing inquiries. “I strongly believe chatbots are going to become more and more important in the future, as we look to automation to simplify business processes,” Rajnish says. “Thanks to natural-language processing, machine learning, and AI, it is going to be very easy for any type of user to communicate with these kinds of platforms and get the best result. We are starting that journey, and we are very confident with Oracle as our platform vendor.”
New Rules for Cloud
Gharge believes the “consumerization of IT” has steadily raised customer expectations, and traditional brands can’t continue to do business without introducing popular communications channels such as mobile, social, messaging, and chat. To get ahead of this curve and establish a foundation for further innovation, the Bajaj Electricals IT team plans to gradually migrate its on-premises Oracle systems to Oracle Cloud. They have already implemented Oracle Planning and Budgeting Cloud Service to replace an on-premises Oracle Hyperion system and are preparing to deploy Oracle Sales Cloud to augment Oracle’s Siebel CRM—further connecting marketing, sales, and services processes to ensure exceptional customer experiences.
Eventually they hope to move their Oracle ERP, BI, and service-oriented architecture (SOA) functionality to the cloud as well, although Gharge says this must be done very carefully, because each on-premises system is highly dependent on the others. “We have confidence in Oracle’s cloud vision,” he says, “and will be testing cloud platforms for some peripheral applications before moving core applications to cloud.”
When asked what advice he would offer to his colleagues, Gharge says embracing new technologies is essential, but IT professionals must be willing to experiment, and even fail, as they figure out what works in their unique environments. “Start small,” he suggests, “and as you learn about the technology and discover its true value, then proceed with large-scale adoption.”
Photography by Namas Bhojani