Cable operators, long used to suffering the slings and arrows of outraged customers during service glitches and outages, have increasingly worked to make it easier for subscribers to solve their own problems quickly, efficiently and accurately. At Mediacom Communications, the fifth-largest cable operator in the country with about 1.4 million customer relationships (mostly in the Midwest), the solution has been to develop and implement digital tools that speed up the journey toward satisfying service questions. One of those tools is an AI-based virtual assistant, dubbed “Molli,” currently part of Mediacom’s SMS text messaging system and geared to help customers navigate their way toward quick answers to their service questions. Multichannel News spoke with Mediacom senior vice president of customer service and financial operations Tapan Dandnaik about Molli and the operator’s customer care philosophy.
MCN: Tell me what you see as the latest trends in customer care for cable?
Tapan Dandnaik: Our philosophy is we have to be where the customer is, and we have to provide a customer experience that really results in the least amount of customer effort. From a measurement perspective, if it takes a customer five attempts to resolve something, if we can resolve it in one try, then that is a reduced effort. If we can do it in a way where we can engage it through a chat session or SMS text on their phone without having them to engage with an agent, or not engage with an agent, but get to the right answers.
We just recently launched our virtual assistant called Molli. When a customer engages with SMS, they first speak to Molli, and if Molli can’t answer the question we send them to a live agent. But the agent interacts with the customer via SMS from their dashboard, the same dashboard they would use if the customer called on the phone. We’ve been training Molli side-by-side with our agents and the early results are extremely promising. She is basically able to handle 70% to 75% of the conversations and only 25% [need to get] our agents involved. So, if you have 100 people chatting with Molli, only 25 are going to an agent where Molli cannot help, and we hope to improve on that.
MCN: What’s the technology behind that?
TD: We’ve engaged with a company called Twilio that provides the infrastructure for Molli, but the actual training and the coding and the learning for Molli is stuff that we’ve done internally. [Senior VP of information technology] Peter Lyons and [group VP, customer service and field support operations] Jon Coscia were a big part of the development.
The way Molli works, we have a Mediacom SMS text number and when a customer that is enrolled in Mediacom’s SMS texts us, Molli will greet them as “Hi I’m Molli, I’m Mediacom’s virtual assistant. How can I help you today?” Molli will go through and essentially help with paying bills, help schedule an appointment, she can find out if the tech is going to arrive at a certain time. If there are certain specific things that Molli is not trained for, then Molli will escalate [the call] to an agent, then the agent will reply and continue the conversation with the customer.
To the customer, the SMS trail will remain; it will never get lost. The agent can pick up where Molli left off and we don’t have to verify, we don’t have to do all the other things you have to do when you have a transfer happening on a phone call. It’s a really seamless experience and the agents that work in the platform love it, and our customers seem to be extremely surprised positively when Molli is answering them.
MCN: Does the name stand for something?
TD: No. We initially thought of making it stand for something, but ultimately Molli was a name our employees picked. We felt it was one of the names that led to a personality description that we wanted to have for our virtual assistant. We wanted our virtual assistant to be empathetic, super-smart, helpful. When we pitched those to our teams, Molli was the name that came out.
MCN: How has Molli been working out?
TD: Molli is doing about 2,000 to 3,000 transactions per day. This is two-way text care, SMS care — the idea being that people don’t want to be on the phone, they want the ability to chat. If you have kids, they don’t want to talk with you, they want to text with you. We have something that we are piloting and testing pretty aggressively and launching in the next week or two weeks — Xtreme View — which shows customers on the app when their technician is arriving in their neighborhood. Molli will be able to provide that kind of information and also say, your tech is about 25 minutes away from your house, they are on this road or that road. As we develop more products on the platform, we’re able to turn on Molli for those things as well.
MCN: So it’s expandable?
TD: Absolutely. I don’t see Molli not being able to do what our agents do. Ultimately our objective is for customers who are not comfortable interacting with Molli, we want to make sure we get them to an agent. Our goal is to get the customer the answer in the fastest way possibly and in the most appropriate way possible.
MCN: Has your focus on digital tools had any impact in terms of reduced truck rolls or calls?
TD: Mediacom is having one of its best years in terms of operations. We believe in an omnichannel approach that delivers to the best extent possible a frictionless customer journey and [we are investing] — about $1 billion over three years — in our business and particularly in our customer-facing digital platforms. Call volume is trending down to low double digits year over year, and the number of interactions on our digital platforms, which includes our Support site, mobile app, two-way SMS [including Molli, which just started] is already over one-third of the total customer contacts and has increased by more than 50% year over year.
All of those things are telling me that we are on the right track and that’s leading to higher customer satisfaction and a better overall customer perception of the company.
MCN: Other operators have used SMS for customer service with live CSRs. What makes Molli so special?
TD: We’re giving Molli a personality, so at some point if you want to ask her about the weather, she can chit-chat with you. One of the things we’re building — it’s in development — but if someone does ask Molli, we want to give her a background, how she was born, how she was created. We don’t want to hide anything — we up front say that she’s a virtual assistant.
With AI and predictive analysis we want to improve things like the ability to look at and triage credits and how we get that to customers quickly. We want to have Molli help with e-commerce, so if a customer wants to upgrade we can have Molli get involved with that. And then we want to bring the same technology into Apple’s new iMessage, Facebook Messenger, What’s App, Alexa. We are a small company, but there are a lot of things we have in the pipeline.
MCN: How long has Molli been available?
TD: We started piloting it softly in August and we’ve turned it on to a group of agents probably a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been doing this for two or three months and we have the data for two or three months. We haven’t formally announced it to customers because we wanted to make sure we didn’t have any missteps. One of the things with digital tools, you want to make sure you do it correctly, otherwise you take a couple of steps backward.
MCN: When is she going to be available system-wide?
TD: It’s going to be a process over the next two or three months. We’re going to grow into it. You have to enroll into our SMS to be able to communicate with Molli, because we want to make sure we get your opt-ins and approvals and all of the things that go with that.
You’ve got to have a great product set, which we think we do. We have the TiVo platform and were the first cable provider to have 1-Gig [Gigabit per second broadband] across the company. Our networks are getting better and [more] reliable; we’ve invested close to $1 billion [over three years in network improvements]. Our customer effort is getting better because we’re doing things that customers don’t have to expend a lot of energy to do — digital tools, texting and getting a quick answer, as opposed to picking up the phone. No one wants to pick up the phone these days.