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'Virtual moron-idiot': Telstra's support chatbot backfires

Ben Grubb

Published: March 9 2018 - 11:47PM

Telstra customers have blasted the launch of a virtual assistant support 'chatbot' that fails to answer basic questions, can't differentiate between names and countries, and is often unable to transfer users to a human agent without multiple attempts.

Launched in October last year and nicknamed 'Codi', Telstra says its virtual assistant makes use of "artificial intelligence" and has already engaged with "hundreds of thousands" of customers.

But many are unimpressed, throwing shade at Codi on Telstra's social media channels, blasting the chatbot as a "virtual moron-idiot", "a complete and utter waste of my time", "stupid", "useless", "hopeless", "the worst idea in the history of customer support", and "utterly frustrating".

It comes as research firm Gartner recently predicted that 25 per cent of all customer service operations would use virtual customer assistants by 2020.

"As more customers engage on digital channels, virtual customer assistants are being implemented for handling customer requests on websites, mobile apps, consumer messaging apps and social networks," Gene Alvarez, managing vice president at Gartner, said in February.

"This is underpinned by improvements in natural-language processing, machine learning and intent-matching capabilities."

Organisations making use of virtual customer assistants have reported a reduction of up to 70 per cent in call, chat and/or email inquiries after implementing it, according to Gartner research. They also report increased customer satisfaction and a 33 per cent saving per voice engagement.

"A great virtual customer assistant offers more than just information," Alvarez said. "It should enrich the customer experience, help the customer throughout the interaction and process transactions on behalf of the customer."

The opposite appears to be the case at Telstra, with client frustration clear on its online channels.

One customer asked Telstra to check on its chatbot to see if it was OK after it kept repeating itself, while another joked that the virtual assistant might be suffering from a virtual hangover.

In one instance, after asking for a customer's name, the virtual assistant failed to transfer them to a human operator and instead offered them information on international roaming, because it couldn't differentiate between their name "Paris" and the city in France.

In that instance, the customer had asked to speak to a human operator 15 times to no avail.

As I said, it’s fine. I got a human by shouting at Codi for 5 minutes. But please file somewhere that Codi is a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

— The man, who goes by "Paris" (@parisba) January 8, 2018

The most common complaint appears to be the bot not understanding a question and then getting stuck in a loop.

The other issue is the chatbot appearing to crash, repeating this same message to users multiple times: "Oops… something went wrong. Can you please retype your message?"

After having to deal with the virtual assistant multiple times, some have begun asking Telstra what the exact phrase is to be transferred to a human operator straight away.

@Telstra @andy_penn Thoughts on Codi - Virtual Assistant for Telstra Support? Also is there a trigger word or something so I can be transferred to an actual human straight away?

— Jordan (@Jordan_2k1) February 24, 2018  

After years of having loved your service, especially the 24x7 chat, you have introduced some useless robot, Codi, to...

Posted by Saoirse Lush on  Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A Telstra spokesman said the telco's "number one" priority was "to deliver brilliant customer experiences".

"As with all artificial intelligence applications, Codi continues to learn with each customer interaction and will improve over time," the spokesman said.

"Customers engaging with Codi can switch to engage with a live chat agent at any stage."

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Telstra said the chatbot was "still in development".

Telstra's Codi is nailing it again. (nothing followed for me to select from, btw)

— Asha McLean (@ashabeeeee) March 5, 2018

Asked how to speak to a human via the chat, the Telstra spokesman could not provide the exact phrase, instead suggesting customers interact with human Telstra consultants by phone or in a store.

"Codi isn't meant to replace people, it's a digital self-service channel provided as a further engagement option for customers," the spokesman said. "If a customer wishes to speak to a consultant we encourage them to visit a store or call our customer service teams on 13 22 00."

The introduction of Codi was supporting "a big shift" of interactions, with Telstra's customers increasingly choosing to interact with it via its digital and self-service tools, the spokesman said.

"Codi now handles a set of simple, specific enquiries and has engaged with hundreds of thousands of customers since its launch," the spokesman said.

Telstra says that if Codi can not answer a question, customers are transferred to a live chat consultant who picks up the conversation from Codi.

However, customers question this.

Codi the virtual @Telstra assistant is the worst idea in the history of customer support. It is beyond useless, and only serves to make me angrier.

— Ersatz Hipster (@uggugg) February 22, 2018

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