With the current pandemic, many of us are doing more of our business online. To make it easier for us to engage with you in a better and more efficient way, the Iowa Department of Transportation has implemented a robust chat feature on our website. While we were starting to implement the live chat portion prior to the pandemic, the health crisis caused us to speed up the implementation.
The state’s Office of the Chief Information Officer brought in the live chat product, Bold360, and made it available to all state agencies. The Iowa DOT launched the first phase of the chat feature on Oct. 23, 2019. with the most basic questions being answered using a database of pre-programed answers. Zhaia Wineinger from our Strategic Communications & Policy Bureau built the database of content that provides the automated answers from the chatbot.
Wineinger said, “When we first launched the chat feature, the system was completely automated. It features artificial intelligence, which means the chatbot gets ‘smarter’ the more it is used. If the system couldn’t automatically answer your question, the customer’s question was routed to an email to be answered as our staff were able. We had planned to let that evolution happen for several months to help the database become more robust before we introduced live agents to the system. However, that process was sped up significantly when COVID-19 hit and we had a need to communicate more vigorously with customers about how they can receive service from us. We went live with the agents on March 23.”
The Iowa DOT’s chat feature is like most other chats you may have used on other sites. When you click on the chat icon, a few of the most common questions appear in the chat box, as well as a link to the Chatbot Tutorial that will walk you through using this feature.
If your question isn’t one of those listed, you can type your question in the chat box. The system attempts to match your question to the database of common questions and answers.
Wineinger said, “That’s the first step. Many of our customers have similar questions that can be answered quickly and efficiently by the automated system. We’ve spent several months collecting data from our information center, the DOT’s ‘contact us’ form and social media to come up with the most common questions and find general answers. If your question is a little more complex or requires information specific to your situation, this system gives you the option to connect with a live agent.”
When you move to a live agent, there is a “pre-chat” form that asks your name, email address, phone number and initial question. Once you have completed the form, the system routes you to the most appropriate agent to answer your type of question. The DOT deals with a lot of different complex subject areas. This pre-chat form helps us assure you are getting the right agent that can most accurately and completely answer your question.
Wineinger notes that there are multiple benefits to live chat. “One benefit to a live chat over a phone call, is we can copy and paste a link right into the conversation for the customer. Some of our customers may be hard of hearing so typing may be preferred. And if you are using your mobile device, you can use the talk to text feature to dictate instead of typing. Chat is just another way for our customers to contact us. You can still call, email, or find us on social media as well. Providing multiple options allows customers to choose how they want to connect with us.”
Wineinger said, “Training was extremely important to assure our customers have a successful experience with chat. To date we have trained 35+ employees across a variety of subject areas who can serve as agents. It’s important that our agents not only understand how to use the chat product but understand the basic subject areas so they can reroute a customer if they were initially sent to the wrong agent to best answer their question. The pandemic has caused additional training challenges because about a third of our employees are working remotely.
She continued, “At any given time during the business day, there are approximately 10 live agents available to answer questions. We try to have two agents available all the time to answer driver’s license questions because those are the most common things people need to connect with a live agent about. “
There are many positive developments coming out of our “new normal” at the Iowa DOT. Better connection to our customers through this online chat is just one of them. The internal feedback we are getting has been positive. While spinning this new way of connecting during a pandemic was a challenge, the agents have picked things up quickly. Technology makes chat easy to do from anywhere. All our live chat agents, except one are working from home. In the middle of her first day Kari Juhl, an employee in our Waterloo driver’s service center, contacted Zhaia, and said, “So, I love this!!! Just wanted you to know. If you can get me a full-time job doing this, I am in for sure!!!”