By Joe Schaefer, Chief Transformation Officer, Strategic Education, Inc.

As the Covid-19 pandemic forces many aspects of our everyday lives online, customer expectations are now at an all-time high. Time has become an even more precious resource for all of us as we juggle work, family, and many other priorities, all from home.

Customers expect you to “value their time, to make engagement easy, and to deliver answers and resolutions in a highly personal manner and in the context of their actions and journeys,” Kate Leggett, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, recently wrote.

Many organizations in sectors including higher education, professional associations, health care, and retail can benefit from using artificial intelligence (AI) to provide better user support. But surprisingly, U.S. companies have been slow to adopt AI technology; only 2.8% use machine learning, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report.

Chatbots powered by AI and machine learning can help meet customer expectations. This technology not only allows organizations to resolve questions and offer quick solutions to common issues, but also learns and adapts to customer preferences so that it can better anticipate customer needs and provide more personalized responses.

One industry that has a lot to gain from this adoption is higher education, which continues to face the challenge of providing personalized service and support for students amid what appears to be a trend of falling retention and enrollment.

I speak from experience. At Strategic Education, Inc.—parent company of Strayer and Capella Universities—our students are older than traditional college students and are often managing family and work as they take classes online. They don’t have the time to be placed on hold or get passed around to support staff to find answers to their administrative questions.

That is why Strayer University set out three years ago to solve the problem of our students’ being bogged down with the tedious administrative aspects of the college experience, such as registering for classes, when their time would be better spent focusing on academics.

Using Dialogflow, Google’s natural-language processing tool, we developed Irving, an innovative virtual machine-learning assistant named after Strayer’s founder, to help answer student questions about administrative tasks and needs online—and more importantly, 24/7. As of September 2020, Irving has handled over 1.1 million conversations with students.

As students engage with Irving, we attempt to train the chatbot as we would train student-support staff, integrating it with the same back-office systems our staff uses to provide service and support to our student base.

Every interaction a student has with Irving is logged and measured for the number of positive interactions, positives, and the level of “intent matching”—measuring whether Irving interpreted the student’s needs correctly.

In surveys, students have said that they appreciate the ability to ask and get responses to questions at a time that is convenient to them—whether at 6 a.m. or 11 p.m. Some have said they often feel more comfortable directing their questions to an automated system. Others mentioned that using Irving was faster than a phone call, and if they had to repeat questions, “you don’t feel like you keep bothering a real person.”

As of January 2020, 88% of Strayer students surveyed who interacted with Irving agreed that the chatbot helped them solve their issue easily, and 92% of them were likely to recommend Irving to other students.

Interestingly, we’ve seen demand for support increase—in a good way. Because Irving is so helpful, students are asking more questions and getting more answers.

By shifting phone calls to automated chats and offloading repetitive tasks, Irving also frees up staff to serve students with more complicated questions and needs. This improves service as well as administrative efficiency across departments.

The system allows us to not only serve students today but to also gain information that will enable us to provide better service tomorrow. Chat logs reveal patterns of usage or even pain points for students that wouldn’t otherwise be detected. For example, if we notice a cluster of problems with registration, we can use that information to improve our business processes.

Irving has also helped us create a stronger and more personalized support system and experience for our students that is often missing, yet critical, in traditional higher education support systems.

Of course, human support is still important, and Irving has helped us ensure that those who really need it get it.

Irving was trained to try to answer any incoming question three times before referring the student to a human. As of September 2019, just over 7% of the conversations have had to be transferred to staff members. This initial success is just the start as the technology enables us to gather the information we need to better support our students.

This is a challenging time for many businesses and organizations forced to completely rethink and revamp their operations. Our case study is proof that an AI- or machine learning-empowered chatbot can have a significant impact on operations and customer support by responding to routine questions, elevating more complex issues, analyzing pain points, and collecting data critical to improvement.

Higher education is one of many industries that would benefit from offering quick, accurate, and personalized service—because while Covid-19 may be contributing to rising customer expectations, the demand for this type of support is likely here to stay. Therefore, implementing a chatbot is a wise investment in future success.

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