Sky looks to AI to get smarter about customers - benefits, learnings and cautions

Mark Samuels Profile picture for user Mark Samuels May 20, 2018
Sky is looking to AI capabilities from Adobe to boost its customer management skills.

Sky hopes that Artificial Intelligence (AI) tech will help it to make smarter decisions about the products and services it offers to its UK customers.

Rob McLaughlin, Head of Digital Decisioning and Analytics at Sky, says the television and telecommunications specialist is using AI as part of a leading-edge approach to data that uses advanced technology to augment human expertise.

He believes the company is already reaping the benefits – and he advises other digital leaders to think now about how they will exploit AI on behalf of the rest of the business:

Look to humanise artificial intelligence – that will help you to explain what you’re doing to your stakeholders and it will help ensure you use the technology to create a better experience for your customers.

All we’re really interested in doing is making sure our customers find what they’re looking for – and we’re just trying to increase the chance of that happening. We want to give them the right content to make decisions at the right time and in the right place, whether that’s on the phone, web or mobile devices.

McLaughlin and his team are responsible for creating and exploiting customer intelligence across online and offline channels. They integrate information sources from a range of locations, including customer relationship management systems and viewing-data services. McLaughlin says the data team looks to draw a direct line between the insights they generate and improvements in customer experience:

Our aim is to structure all this information from various sources so that we can understand customer behaviours, intents and needs. From that insight, we look to create a decisioning layer, where we analyse our customers and think about the right decision for their current requirements. These decisions are often a product recommendation or some form of messaging or servicing. And we use information to make recommendations and build experiences. So, it’s about creating data, integrating data and making use of it in an operational way.

McLaughlin explains that the objective is to use advanced technology, such as big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, to automate how Sky makes product recommendations for its customers. With the right approach, customers are happy and profits at the firm increase. McLaughlin recognises these two outcomes can only be achieved if Sky makes effective use of the insight it generates:

In the instance that we’re lucky enough the customer wants to share their data with us, we have the opportunity to understand them and think about what they need. That doesn’t mean that we pre-determine the products they must have – it means we simply present them with content and ideas, and we’re constantly looking to increase the relevance of those offers. I refer to this approach as maximising serendipity – we’re looking to increase the chance that the things our customers see are going to be the things that they’re interested in.

Applying AI

McLaughlin says AI plays an ever-increasing role in helping Sky boost the relevance of the content and ideas it presents to customers. The firm has been using the technology since last summer, with the most-developed application of AI at Sky currently around work on product recommendations:

We have 11 million UK customers and they have a hugely varied set of profiles. It would be difficult and inefficient for a human to create a match between past experiences and new products for those customers. So, this area is the perfect application for AI and we’ve been leading-edge in terms of deploying technology to help our customers.

The firm implemented the automated web site testing and personalisation system Adobe Target last July. The system was used to test AI, which was introduced alongside a human, rules-based approach, where employees have a static set of rules they use during customer interactions.

The methods – both AI and human – were put in competition with one another. The programme developed rapidly and the first results were generated within a month. While business benefits are being generated, McLaughlin cautions that other executives should note AI is by no means a silver bullet for the business challenges the organisation faces:

The truth is the AI system only slightly outperforms the human, rules-based approach in terms of recommendations right now. That’s interesting and leaves us with the feeling that there’s still a significant amount of head room for us to progress as we refine the data that we make available to the AI platform. We’ll get better performance as we move forward. And that’s a big learning for us. There’s a huge amount of human work to do to enable effective AI.

The process of testing AI systems against human agents, known internally as ‘Decisioning by Digital’, continues. While the first test of the programme was run within five weeks, his team continues to hone the use of AI within decision-making processes and its use alongside human-based rules. In fact, McLaughlin doesn’t believe there is necessarily a definitive end to the programme – what he is developing is a long-term vision, where AI-generated insights augment human expertise:

Our vision is that we’ll use AI heavily to help us make effective recommendations through digital channels. But we want our work to feel human and we want the technology to make decisions a human can understand. In fact, we also want AI to support humans to be more human – we want to use the technology to help our people in our contact centres make more effective decisions.

It would be great if the people here had access to the same information used by our AI systems and could use that knowledge to have better conversations with our customers. I think there’s a huge role for AI to enhance human interactions.

My take

Potential use cases of AI can be easy to build in practice but on-the-ground implementations are tougher to find. Sky’s use of advanced technology is helping the firm boost customer experience and business performance. The fast-developing project demonstrates how digital leaders who receive business buy-in can generate a business case for AI quickly, even if it remains a nascent area of technological development.

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