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Looking Back, Together: Our virtual agent technology

One year in from the onset of the pandemic when it was all hands on deck and what we learned from it all.

Shyn Yee Ho | Director, Product Management

Related to COVID-19, what were some of the problems you and your team were trying to solve over the past year?  

When the pandemic struck and borders started to close, our customers globally had to make quick changes to their travel plans. Our contact centers experienced 5 times the usual volume of calls and emails while at the same time, government lockdowns forced a significant reduction in contact center capacity in multiple locations. At one point, our global capacity was down to as low as 23 percent.  This sudden surge in demand for support combined with the drastic reduction in support availability created the perfect storm. The Conversation Platform and Customer Engagement (CPCE) team, part of Expedia Group’s Platform and Marketplaces Division, had to very quickly develop creative solutions to ease this acute bottleneck, such as rapid development of self-serve and bulk-serve capabilities. In addition, the solutions had to be relevant for our customers internationally, which meant localizing them into multiple languages across numerous touchpoints and adapting to different and fast-evolving government regulations.

During this time, we accelerated the development of our intelligent virtual agent, which is now live on most of our websites, mobile apps and third-party messaging chat apps. The multi-lingual virtual agent provides self-serve options for our travelers throughout their journey from pre-booking to post-booking, such as answering questions about amenities, changing and canceling bookings, and requesting and checking the status of refunds. Equipped with natural language processing and understanding capabilities, our virtual agent is trained with massive amounts of data and context to understand traveler needs, which is extremely powerful. This allows our virtual agent to solve traveler queries quickly, which relieves them of the stress that comes frequently with travel planning. When required, our virtual agent brings in a human customer service agent to provide live support for more complex traveler problems.

What were the challenges you had to overcome to develop solutions for those problems?

“Flying” in the time of COVID

It was a very unnerving and stressful period of time, both personally and professionally, as one can imagine. Our customers around the world were impacted by fast-changing travel restrictions and were understandably very concerned about their upcoming travel plans. Simultaneously, team members were managing the sudden switch to working from home, with many balancing caregiving responsibilities as well. The CPCE team had already been working hard at developing best-in-class Virtual Agent capabilities, but with the crisis, the team had to quickly review our plans and accelerate the development. We specifically scaled features and capabilities that would address our customers’ immediate needs, particularly in canceling and changing their bookings across multiple lines of business. This is highly complex and typically involves many teams and touches numerous tech stacks. However, with helping our customers and partners around the world as a top priority during this unpredictable time, we had all hands on deck, working around the clock to make things happen.

What are you most proud of? 

It was imperative for our team and our company to move as quickly as possible. During this time of crisis, we saw employees across the organization regardless of team and brand, pitch in to help in any way possible. There wasn’t a question of whose backlog it was, whose responsibility it was, but whoever had the expertise and the know-how just stepped in to help. It was very encouraging and motivating to see Expedians come together that way to do everything within our power (and more) to help our customers, partners and one another.

First day returning to the office in January 2021

Of our 5 Values – Choose Fearlessly, Force Simplicity, Include Consciously, Trust Each Other, Go Get What’s Next – which did you or your team most embrace? Why was that important? 

It was most definitely to Trust Each Other. We all had one shared goal – which was to help our customers and partners globally – and we trusted each other to do what was best for them, for the business, and for one another. Especially in times of crisis, we could count on and support one another, with tangible actions, words of encouragement, and even food deliveries. There was an unspoken understanding that all of us were in this together and have “got one another’s backs” (and bellies!)

Personally, what have you learned over the past year? When you think back to the past year, are there any memorable moments that stick out to you? 

I learnt a lot about focus, resilience, hope, and empathy in the past year. 2020 was extremely demanding for everyone, and many of us, myself included, had to dig deep to find our intrinsic motivations and personal truths to help us through the trying times. It was incredible to drive a ~ 2x improvement in customer self-serve rates through the team’s efforts and save substantial annualized costs for the company. This took a lot of determination and focus from the team, which was only made possible because every individual put in their best despite all the challenges that we were facing in our personal lives dealing with the pandemic. It was a lesson in learning about the power of the individual and the collective impact of the whole. These lessons are still valuable today, even as challenges emerge while the virus continues to impact my colleagues around the world

During the pandemic, many Expedians who were juggling lockdown, work and caregiving also came together to offer one another support in the form of sharing online education resources, children online entertainment options etc. In addition, there was a global program EG Junior Journeys where Expedians volunteered to read children’s stories to the children of Expedians to help provide parents a bit of a breather. It was great to partake in that, and to watch how everyone did everything they could to help one another out regardless of location and timezone.

Live online storytelling to children of Expedians around the world 

In one sentence, what would you go back and tell yourself at the beginning of the pandemic? 

Work from home set up

Hang on tight, this is going to be one helluva crazy ride; and when you eventually get there, you will marvel at all the personal and organizational lessons you will learn. (Sounds kinda like life in general, doesn’t it???)

P.S. Invest in that height adjustable table and noise-blocking headset ASAP.


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