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Albuquerque Amazon Alexa skill takes heat off call center

Tens of thousands of Alexa skills -- voice-activated apps -- exist, with more to come. Learn how a city government's call center created one to help residents.

After getting an Amazon Echo smart speaker in 2016, Matt Maez was so impressed with how quickly he could order -- and reorder -- his favorite Domino's pizza, he spotted an opportunity to upgrade Albuquerque, N.M.'s city government.

That flash of inspiration for Maez, the city's digital engagement specialist, grew into the creation of an Amazon Alexa skill that addresses residents' top 150 frequently asked questions and incident reports. The skill went live in early May. He hopes the project will simultaneously elevate the city's tech-savviness in the eyes of its resident taxpayers, improve services and reduce city call center volume.

The key to rolling out the Amazon Alexa skill, he said, was creating the low-code -- and in some cases, no-code, after a Blueprint platform refresh last month -- custom, voice-activated apps. In the City of Albuquerque's case, that meant automating answers to common issues, such as looking up zoo hours, scheduling large item curb pickup, and reporting graffiti or missed trash.

Alexa is the only viable choice right now

Maez isn't a programmer; he runs the city's website and social media. But the Alexa Skills Blueprint paved the way for him to get started. Maez said the city settled on launching its voice channel support with an Amazon Alexa skill because it was so easy to launch; furthermore, more people have Amazon Echo speakers than Apple HomePods or Google Homes.

"Right now, we're only supporting Alexa. We started that because it has the largest market share for that type of voice assistant," Maez said. "Of course, there's probably more [Apple] Siri machines out there, but it's a different interaction.

"Amazon has made their skill development really easy to use. They're aggressively trying to get organizations to create skills for the Alexa platform."

That makes sense, said Dan Stoll, senior technical marketing manager at Nintex Global Ltd., a microservices development vendor specializing in process automation. He's seen Nintex partners and clients employ voice channel for a number of uses, including customer service -- or at least to evaluate how such projects can be implemented in the near future -- as Amazon Alexa skills move from consumer to business productivity.

Amazon Alexa skills are far easier to implement than their Google or Apple counterparts, Stoll said. Google uses a much less flexible platform compared to Amazon's that doesn't allow for custom app development. Stoll calls the Apple HomePod "pretty useless, unless you want to play music. And even then, only Apple Music."

All three consumer smart speaker platforms may, in time, reveal a common weakness, Stoll said, and that is the ability to handle enterprise volume. The more simultaneous calls a particular voice channel can get, the more likely it will be overwhelmed, a challenge Nintex customers must solve when they set up IoT hubs to field data from thousands of sensors.

"That [capability] is missing from the Alexa world," Stoll said. "Similarly in the Google Home and Apple HomePod, too."

For his part, Maez said that he is confident volume won't be an issue as AWS servers field the calls from Albuquerque residents, which are in turn piped into the city's cloud instance of Oracle Service Cloud. If Albuquerque is having issues with server volume, then "so will 40% of the internet," Maez said, making reference to the expanse of AWS.

But that's only theoretical at this point, he cautioned, as Albuquerque's Amazon Alexa skill has only been soft-launched, with a marketing push to come later this year. At that time, the city will find out for sure if call volume will be an issue -- and if they meet their goals, they'll find out for sure: The plan is to reduce call volume by 15% in two years by employing voice channel to answer FAQs and file simple incident reports. This will give call center agents more time to handle more complex service requests, which take, on average, five times longer than answering these simple queries, Maez said.

Designing data collection rules

One challenge to Amazon Alexa skill development that businesses face, in this era of heightened consumer privacy awareness caused by constant data breaches and the continuing Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal, is how to approach data collection. Amazon, after all, is a party to the service.

Maez said that, because they represent a public entity in this era of privacy-conscious consumers, his team is cognizant of collecting as little data as is needed for each task the Amazon Alexa skill will manage.

Where lots of organizations are trying to soak up as much data as they can, we're actively trying to limit the amount of data we collect.
Matt Maezdigital engagement specialist, City of Albuquerque

For instance, to pick up an old couch tagged for the landfill, the city has to know a resident's name and address. For reporting graffiti, weed overgrowth or litter issues -- appearance problems the city proactively battles -- Albuquerque allows for anonymous reporting. That inspires more residents to notify the city of those issues because there's no fear of retribution.

In each case, Maez said, the city government collects the minimum amount of data to get the job done.

"Where lots of organizations are trying to soak up as much data as they can, we're actively trying to limit the amount of data we collect for the specific incident being reported," he said. "The security of our residents' data is paramount, and we don't want to do anything that exposes their data in a way that isn't transparent -- that they don't know about or agree to."

Selling it to the call center team

Maez's Amazon Alexa skill augments the city's 311 citizen call center, which has answered resident questions for more than a decade and shows up in polls as a perennial favorite city service, fielding about 60,000-90,000 interactions a month.

Before the call center, figuring out zoo hours, for example, was tough.

"If you wanted to find out when the zoo was open, you had to go to the blue pages and find the proper listing," Maez said. "In Albuquerque, our zoo is called the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo. So if you're looking up zoo in the Z's, you wouldn't find it. Then maybe you remember, 'I think it's called the BioPark,' and you go to the B's. But, actually, it's under the A's for Albuquerque."

Multiply that over hundreds of use cases -- such as trying to figure out the name of the department to which one reports potholes -- and it's obvious why call center agents are needed to help navigate taxpayers through the bureaucracy.

Giving residents an automated voice channel that can address the top 150 frequently asked questions, Maez said, should take volume away from the call center agents, who, in turn, will have more time to tackle more complex resident questions and help them connect with underserved populations.

At first, Maez said, call center employees weren't sure what to make of the Amazon Alexa skill initiative, and they were worried it was a threat to their jobs or might disrupt their workflow. However, Maez pointed out that previous information endeavors, such as opening email channels, upgrading the website and creating a city smartphone app, didn't lead to call center layoffs.

Maez also helped dispel those concerns by bringing call center leadership on board to help design and brand the service, down to the wording of the answers Alexa would deliver. It not only gives the call center partial ownership of the service, but it also helps reassure residents that the chatbot is actually routing their requests and they aren't getting lost or ignored.

"Our message mirrors the call center's, where [after taking the caller's information] we say, 'Thank you so much for reporting this issue. It's been reported. Your reference number is [x].' And we make it possible for citizens to call back and find out the end result," Maez said.

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