Watch How the City of Mesa Decided to Deploy an AI-Powered SMS Chatbot

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Back in December, we announced the City of Mesa’s decision to deploy an AI-powered Aspect SMS chatbot to their residents for utility bill pay and more. The CIO of the 3rd-largest city in Arizona was cited in a piece by Government Computer News (GCN) with the words: “We want to communicate with the public in ways that they’re used to communicating. Because we understand that people’s time is important to them, we want to answer citizens’ questions to the government when they want and how they want it.

The decision was made after a study session in June 2016, which was broadcast by “Mesa 11”, the city’s broadcast and news station. The public session can be viewed on YouTube and is definitely worth a look, as it represents the line of argument the industry has been advocating for quite some time now.

The interim CIO, and the City Manager, Chris Brady, are talking about two services that Aspect is introducing: a more natural sounding text-to-speech system to improve the IVR experience, and the new chatbot, aka Interactive Text Response. “The SMS text response system will initially support our business services. It will support natural language inquiries. Sometimes with other systems, you have to type in cryptic codes, whereas this system will respond to natural language inquiries and offer 2-way conversations. The use can be expanded beyond utility uses later.

The mayor, John Giles, asks “Texting has become the way that most of us communicate nowadays, esp. millennials. Are we getting better at incorporating that technology into how we interact with our customers and is this a step in that direction?” His technical staff elaborates: “Right now the text messaging is 1-way; I get a text message every time my bill is being paid. This will allow to text back questions – the customer can ask questions. […] This is our foray into multi-channel communications – the ability to meet the residents where they like to be.

The mayor concludes with a forward-looking vision of how this system can evolve: “There are a lot of millennials now that, with their Starbucks in one hand, could use their other hand to text something like ‘I just saw an auto accident’. It would be unusual for them to communicate any other way.

What’s interesting to note is that the opportunity for cutting labor cost, one of the value proposition of Aspect’s chatbots, did not play a role for the city – the improvement of the citizens’ experience (another form of “CX”) is the primary driver for this initiative.

The system is planned to go live this month, and it will be exciting to see the City of Mesa be one of the first to take self-service texting to the next level for the residents of a major city.

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Tobias Goebel

Tobias is Director of Emerging Technologies at Aspect. He has over 14 years of experience in customer care technology and the contact center industry with roles spanning engineering, consulting, pre-sales engineering, program and product management, and product marketing. As part of Aspect's product management and marketing team today, he works on defining the future of the mobile customer experience, bringing together channels such as mobile apps, messaging, voice, and social. He is a frequent speaker and blogger on topics around customer service and, more recently, the (re-)emerging chatbot, NLP, and AI technologies. Tobias holds degrees in Computational Linguistics, Phonetics, and Computer Science from the universities of Bonn, Germany and Edinburgh, UK.
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