LaChelle Porter-Ainer sits at the end of a long table, in front of a laptop, flanked by four sitting and standing members of her team.

‘How can I help you?’ An AI-powered virtual agent is guiding HP customers to faster fixes

9 November, 2017

Dishes were done. Schoolwork was complete. And the house was hushed by 10 p.m. That’s when LaChelle Porter-Ainer nestled into her Bay Area home office, opened her laptop and began following conversations around the world.

Late into the night, she tracked live chats between HP Inc. customers and the company’s new virtual agent, a tool that learns independently each time it talks to a person.

She saw the questions that customers were asking at that hour, like how to set up a printer or how to connect a PC to a wireless network. She saw how the virtual agent understood the queries, guiding users to diagnose and solve their tech problems.

Porter-Ainer, vice president and head of global digital support and contact centers at HP, assessed each of those interactions with the keen eye of a parent, growing increasingly excited, she said, by happy customer outcomes and the natural flow of dialogue between humans and an artificial intelligence.

“The virtual agent has a core base of knowledge, what we call the brain. It can navigate 50,000 pages of HP product information,” Porter-Ainer says. “When I check in on the tool through the dashboard, it’s powerful to watch.

“I do that often, actually. I do that at night. I do that in the morning. I have 24-hour access so I click through the data and analyze the trends. I observe the conversations. I want to know: Is it improving? Because we are still in learning mode.”

LaChelle Porter-Ainer image.

LaChelle Porter-Ainer

Porter-Ainer and her team have led the virtual agent’s deployment. Following months of beta testing in eight countries, including the U.S., they foresee a launch this month.

The chatbot will be busy.

HP handles more than 600 million technical support contacts each year, an average of more than 1,000 per minute.

Built with the Microsoft Dynamics 365 AI solution, the virtual agent is designed to communicate conversationally and grow smarter over time, giving customers a self-service option and faster fixes.

If the virtual agent can’t resolve an issue, it automatically transfers the customer to a live HP support employee. Also passed along: all pertinent information on the customer’s HP device, details about the problem and the steps they’ve already tried to remedy it.

The tool enables the live agents to access, with one touch, every HP support database and retrieve the specific data they need.

“It’s going to cut down on call handle times,” says Joseph Thibodaux, an HP customer support agent. “It’s going to cut down on the actual overall wait for the customer.”

Screenshot of a troubleshooting page for an HP product.

The virtual agent, bottom right corner of this HP product page, pops in to ask if help is needed.

That’s because Microsoft’s AI solution injects the HP virtual agent with unique abilities, including inferring user profile and product information to give customers immediate self-help, says Brian Bilodeau, Microsoft general manager of customer care intelligence.

The Microsoft AI solution is also equipped with an integrated dashboard for real-time insights, and it comes “enterprise ready, capable on Day One of handling significant volumes and supporting a large number of customer inquiries, or what we call ‘intents,’” Bilodeau says.

“A customer can actually communicate in their own words and the virtual agent can translate to find the intention of that customer’s question – and get that customer a response,” Porter-Ainer adds. “In other words, you just type as you would normally talk.”

When communicating with the virtual agent, a customer need not be a tech expert – or a great speller. If customers mistype words during a chat, the AI-powered virtual agent learns from those errors, understands them and replies appropriately, Porter-Ainer says,

For example, in one recent chat with the virtual agent, a customer typed “noat book.” The virtual agent recognized that as “notebook.”

Porter-Ainer – whose 20-year HP career also spans operations, strategy, analytics and finance – is the bridge between HP and the AI technology. As Microsoft piloted that solution for use among its own customer support staff, she visited the company’s Redmond, Washington campus to chat about other aspects of the HP-Microsoft partnership.

“The AI team came to me. They showed me a couple of demos and shared an idea: They wanted to work with HP to test whether their new tool would work well for customers in other support environments,” Porter-Ainer says.

After learning about the tool, Porter-Ainer spoke with the technical experts and architects on her digital team at HP.

“We started talking about how this could help us. We started to formulate ideas around how we thought this would be effective – a first investigation,” Porter-Ainer says.

For that analysis, she tapped accounting expertise that she gained years ago when she worked as a CPA. That training ultimately helped inform those late-night and early-morning chats she monitored from home on her laptop.

“That is part of my audit experience. When I sit down and look at the tool and the dashboard, I’m using that same skillset. I’m saying, ‘OK, I heard the tool is successful at helping customers. Well, let me go in and see if that is happening.’

“And it is happening,” Porter-Ainer says. “It’s helping us cover more issues and resolve more problems. It’s an efficient way for customers to engage with self-service.”

Top image: LaChelle Porter-Ainer, center, and team at HP.  All images courtesy of HP Inc.