[Podcast] AI operator—solving call center workforce shortage in Japan

Katie Sadler bw
Posted: 03/07/2018

We generally provide 24 hours support but didn't have enough employees.  Artificial Intelligence (AI) solved this problem

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

“The younger generation in Japan doesn’t like to ask people questions. They find it easier to access the AI chat bar—this is so interesting to me,” discovers Akiko Fukuda during the launch of ‘Cotoha’ or ‘communication happiness’—a new cognitive AI agent.

Financial literacy can pose a barrier for this cohort but AI can solve it without customers fearing being judged, she explained to AI Network Podcast host, Seth Adler. “In Japan we don't have enough financial literacy so we need to ask how to do it. It's a barrier to enter the security service and to open up a security account.”

The country’s falling population and subsequent workforce has reduced the number of call center employees in the financial sector. “We tend to have 24 hours support in call centers but they don't have a big enough workforce to provide operators.  AI solved this problem”

“I had a lot of special engineers—that wasn’t a problem but the business model was immature. We didn't know what to set as a market price or how to relate to customers”

However, implementation of Cotcha has posed its challenges, the technology was there but the business model was in its infancy. “I had a lot of special engineers—that wasn’t a problem but the business model was immature. We didn't know what to set as a market price or how to relate to customers,” she explained.

Tune in as Fukuda and Adler discus the advantages and challenges of implementing an AI agent and discover how it has helped broaden horizons to reach a global market.


Seth Adler: Akiko Fukuda joins us. First some supporters to thank and thank you for listening.

This episode is supported by the AIIA network. The AI and intelligent automation network is an online community focused on building the intelligent enterprise. Content covers a broad range of issues including digital disruption and transformation, task and robotic process automation, augmented intelligence, machine learning, and cognitive computing. Our goal is to help businesses apply these technologies and build the intelligent of the future. Go to AIIA.net to join.

This episode was also supported by RPA and AI week 2017. The world decision makers and doers and process excellence in shared services meet in London this November to collaborate on the direction of task automation and augmented intelligence. Share best practice and discover strategies, tactics and initiatives which industry leaders are already implementing for business success. 2017 is our second year of bringing this growing and exciting industry together. Go to RPAandAIsummit.com for more.

Akiko Fukuda joins us from the RPA and AI BFSI summit in London where she introduces us to Cotoha 00:01:19 the AI agent. Cotoha stands for communication happiness. The organization has launched commercial customers and they've got a lot of customer feedback. Customers have the option of choosing a human agent or the AI bot and they are choosing the bott. Akiko explains that the younger generation in Japan doesn't like human interaction within this service reality. She further explains that humans don't mind asking bots questions they feel might be stupid whereas they might be reticent to do so with a human agent.

Welcome to the AI and intelligent automation network on B2BiQ I'm your host Seth Adler. Download episodes on AIIA.net or through our app in iTunes within the iTunes podcast app in Google Play. Or wherever you currently get your podcasts.

Akiko Fukuda.

Akiko Fukuda: Fukuda.

Seth Adler: This is more difficult for me.

Akiko Fukuda: Right exactly. I understand.

Seth Adler: I would say Fukuda.

Akiko Fukuda: Yeah that's fine.

Seth Adler: It's close. And NTT communications.

Akiko Fukuda: Yes it is.

Seth Adler: This is a very large institution.

Akiko Fukuda: Yes it is. It is large one of the largest companies in Japan. Like a Toyota as well as NTT yes.

Seth Adler: How many employees do you have worldwide, do you know these numbers?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes. So it's gonna be 200,000 people employees in total in the whole NTT group in the world.

Seth Adler: It's a few, it's more than a few.

Akiko Fukuda: Yeah. And we have more than 150 countries operation in the world.

Seth Adler: Amazing. So we're here at the RPA and AI BFSI event which is a lot of letters. But you and I were talking and it turns out you guys are doing some interesting stuff.

Akiko Fukuda: We just launched new AI business in Japan, mainly for the cognitive agent service on the cloud, named Cotoha.

Seth Adler: Oh so this agent has a name.

What is the name again?

Akiko Fukuda: Cotoha.

Seth Adler: Cotoha.

Akiko Fukuda: Yeah. Cotoha stands for communication happiness.

Seth Adler: Communication happiness?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes. Actually it sounds like a word in Japanese.

Seth Adler: It does.

Akiko Fukuda: Right.

Seth Adler: Okay. It sounds like a word.

Akiko Fukuda: Word in Japanese - kotoba. It sounds like.

Seth Adler: You've named the agent and it is customer facing and has it interacted with customers yet?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes. We do have, they already have many POCs as well as one we just launched first commercial customers in May.

Seth Adler: In May?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes.

Seth Adler: What are customers already saying, how are customers relating back to NTT saying we like, we don't like it? This is what we like, this is what we don't.

Akiko Fukuda: We do have a lot of positive feedback from our customers mainly for financial sectors. One of the customers are commercial service named Nikko security, one of the biggest securities service company and they have big contract [inaudible 00:04:42] a hundred more than a hundred chat a day by around 10 people, operators. Once in May we started providing Cotoha service embedded chat bott service. They can handle 20% more chat bott chat service comparing the before.

Seth Adler: Yeah, so 20% more. It's a fair amount.

Akiko Fukuda: Right.

Seth Adler: It's roughly a fifth. In any language this is true. So understood on the work load it understood that the customers that have interacted with the agent are satisfied. How aware are they that this is a robot?

Akiko Fukuda: This is actually interesting. We do have chat application which is very popular in Japan named Line. It is like similar to WhatsApp in US. Let me show you what's the application look like.

Seth Adler: Now this is an audio podcast so it will be, I'll have to describe what we're looking at but at least for the purposes of our conversation. It's called Line.

Akiko Fukuda: This is Line.

Seth Adler: And it looks like WhatsApp. The interface is extremely similar but I would imagine you're pulling up an interaction with the agent. And it looks like any other interaction.

Akiko Fukuda: This is our customer's official interface. This is green place. This once you put your [design 00:06:38] that their human being operators are answering your question.

Seth Adler: So under one button there are human operators, there's an avatar there which would make me think potentially it's a bott but it's a human.

Akiko Fukuda: Yes. And this is same AI. You see.

Seth Adler: It says AI.

Akiko Fukuda: The blue button here ...

Seth Adler: The blue button is for bots.

Akiko Fukuda: Yes this is bott.

Seth Adler: Right under it, right there. So that's the customer interface. That's not the customer, the end user interface. It is.

Akiko Fukuda: This is end user interface.

Seth Adler: Okay so they can choose either a human or an AI, and they are choosing AI. Why do you think they're choosing AI?

Akiko Fukuda: So this is interesting to me. The younger generation in Japan doesn’t like to ask people. So they find it very easy to access the AI chat bar.

Seth Adler: They know? Is it because they know that the AI bott that will do it, I don't have to interact with it? There will be no human error? This is amazing to me. Because I am generation X so I would always choose the human. I would never choose the AI and you're saying that this younger generation's absolutely choosing AI.

Akiko Fukuda: Right. In Japan we don't have enough financial literacy so we need to ask how to do it. It's a kind of barrier to enter the security service and to open up a security account.

Seth Adler: The financial literacy itself being a barrier.

Akiko Fukuda: Exactly.

Seth Adler: I see. So this helps that because I can ask stupid questions to AI and AI doesn't care. I'm sorry what was the name of the agent again? I keep forgetting.

Akiko Fukuda: Cotoha.

Seth Adler: Cotoha.

Akiko Fukuda: Yes.

Seth Adler: I can ask Cotoha, Cotoha doesn't care. Fair enough.

Akiko Fukuda: Interesting right?

Seth Adler: Absolutely. All right so 20% more workload, we've identified a customer segment that's actually specifically appreciates AI more than human interaction which adds up with everything that we've been talking about as far as generational differences. Let's talk about Akiko.

Akiko Fukuda: Okay sure.

Seth Adler: You're from Japan of course. Where in Japan are you from?

Akiko Fukuda: I'm originally from Kyoto, born in Kyoto because my parents are from Kyoto, and I moved to Gifu in the middle of Japan and graduated in University in Tokyo. Since then I stayed in Tokyo.

Seth Adler: Stayed in Tokyo University because once you go to the big city how are you ever going to go back? We were talking before, I turned on the microphone, I come from New York, when I visited Tokyo this is the first time that I thought New York was small. We just shared this. It is amazing the mass of people, the density of people that are in Tokyo because you have not only crosswalks but cross, cross walks.

Akiko Fukuda: Yes.

Seth Adler: As well. The village teeming with people. So what did you study at university?

Akiko Fukuda: Industry management. [inaudible 00:09:49] management. After that, actually five years ago, I was in MIT.

Seth Adler: MIT?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes. In US. In Boston.

Seth Adler: Of course in Cambridge. All right. And what did you study there?

Akiko Fukuda: Of course management, business.

Seth Adler: What did you think of that?

Akiko Fukuda: It's quite different experience for me. My company gave me a chance to do that.

Seth Adler: That was through NTT?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes sponsored by NTT.

Seth Adler: It was different education. How because obviously you're a smart person if you were at MIT. How was your education experienced different in Japan than it was in MIT?

Akiko Fukuda: MIT was more it's a very usual in US but for me it's new to me because it's a very interactive and global. Our class was 100 people from 26 countries. Very international environment. To me there was my first time experience to be global.

Seth Adler: Got it. So simply the make up of the class being it's everyone from everywhere.

Akiko Fukuda: Right exactly. Yes.

Seth Adler: So management, management, management, we know that you have a process oriented mind obviously. What was the employment of your parents, what did they do for a living?

Akiko Fukuda: My parents? My father used to be semiconductor engineer. Under  Panasonic.

Seth Adler: So scientific, mathematic, very smart.

Akiko Fukuda: Thank you. And my mom is work for I don't know how to describe in English but it's a family issue before trial.

Seth Adler: It's law, is it a lawyer?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes.

Seth Adler: Also very smart person. Okay so two very smart parents. Do you have siblings?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes I have a sister. She is an architect.

Seth Adler: Older or younger.

Akiko Fukuda: Younger sister.

Seth Adler: All right. So all of these smart people. What was your first job after graduating from university?

Akiko Fukuda: I used to be a network engineer. My history is basically in NTT all the NTT. And first I studied as a network engineer initially.

Seth Adler: What was that work? In other words you've got your management degree, you understand how things are supposed to work from a university perspective, then of course you get the job and it's slightly different no matter what. What kind of work did they give you as a network engineer?

Akiko Fukuda: I was, first experience as a project manager, which was I was late 20s, it was a very fortunate thing business. We create the whole video network around Japan which is a horse racing places, connecting.

Seth Adler: Sure. So that people can wager so that people can bet. So you did this network, interesting. What was that like, because you had to go to many other places than Tokyo right? Both big cities and very small cities, what was it like dealing with folks in all of these different places to connect the horse racing culture, what was that like?

Akiko Fukuda: Actually it was tough job. Horse racing places every year in Japan. From the northern part of Hokkaido to the Kyushu. It's a [inaudible 00:14:03]. I travel around almost every week for one year.

Seth Adler: All the way north, all the way south. And what was the most difficult, do you remember where it was most difficult to explain what you were doing?

Akiko Fukuda: That hardware have trouble and we don't know what is the trouble, for six months I think.

Seth Adler: Oh boy.

Akiko Fukuda: Every weekend they, our customers hold horse races of course every weekend. During the six months I don't know when but I was sure something wrong happened at least once a day.

Seth Adler: Everyday?

Akiko Fukuda: I need to know once it happened.

Seth Adler: Oh my goodness. And where is it, who knows? But usually the hardware of course. So this was a long time to get this ...

Akiko Fukuda: Solved.

Seth Adler: Okay. What period of time do you think it took? Was it a year, was it two years?

Akiko Fukuda: I thought it was the trouble continue, maybe six months.

Seth Adler: Six months, so we worked it out in six months but still, a harrowing six months. So now let's compare that, I'm sure there's many other examples but let's compare that one to the launch of this cognitive bott. How far back did you and the team say we must have cognitive and it must be customer facing. How far back did that conversation begin?

Akiko Fukuda: It's probably interesting. I need to tell you the situation in Japan. As you may know, in Japan the population shrinking. This is very severe problem, social problem in Japan.

Seth Adler: Did you say serious?

Akiko Fukuda: Serious, serious yes. How can I say? We start facing lack of workforce now. So for example we have the big chain restaurant , and a 24 hours open every day but they start to stop their 24 hours operation.

Seth Adler: We don't have the work force to be able to be open 24 hours anymore sorry about that. Got it okay.

Akiko Fukuda: So the same thing happens in call center. We tend to have 24 hours support but they don't have a big enough workforce to provide operators.  AI solved this problem actually.

Seth Adler: Understood. When did this become apparent to you and your team in NTT? We are starting to see the workforce come down, we need to do something about it. Was it one year ago, was it two years ago? When was it?

Akiko Fukuda: It was two years ago. Our big boss think of it, start gathering the big team. At that time I didn't join that.

Seth Adler: But when you did join it you had the buy in from the big boss.

Akiko Fukuda: Oh yes.

Seth Adler: He I would imagine said this is what we're going to do and now the team will do it. If that was two years ago when did you join?

Akiko Fukuda: I joined in April.

Seth Adler: What had they accomplished up until April?

Akiko Fukuda: In April it was just a Cotoha service started in October. We had faced a lot of problems. It's just started. It's like a small little kid.

Seth Adler: We very much appreciate what the child is doing, but the child is doing things wrong. Many times. We have to teach the child.

Akiko Fukuda: So this is my job.

Seth Adler: To teach the child. Or to solve the network, it goes back to the horse betting thing. So what kinds of things did you need to immediately fix?

Akiko Fukuda: I had a lot of special engineers. That is not a problem but business model wise it's immature.

Seth Adler: Yes right.

Akiko Fukuda: We don't know what is a market price. How to ...

Seth Adler: Maybe relate to the customers?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes.

Seth Adler: We don't know the language that they would prefer. What kind of tonal changes do we need, want. If someone's choosing AI how human do we want to make this thing anyway, is that fair?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes. The other thing we faced is NTT is not known  like it is in Japan. Everybody knows our company of course but as a network provider or a data center provider, not like AI provider.

Seth Adler: Right, interesting. That's when I came up to you and I said NTT. I said "Oh NTT it's a big company." And you were surprised that I knew. So that's interesting. All right so we had to work on the tonal changes. What we hear all the time about RPA, what we hear all the time about AI is that if you give the robot the right data, the robot will not be wrong. However you did say it was like a little child to begin with, meaning that there were not necessarily that it was factually wrong but there were inaccuracies. Can you share how not necessarily mistakes is the wrong word, but what was going wrong that you had to change other than tonal, and other than customer facing type soft issues? What other issues were there?

Akiko Fukuda: One thing is it is very tough to handle Japanese language.

Seth Adler: I know this because I visited. It's very difficult for me because you have to first the ... Alphabet which is different and then everything in between.

Akiko Fukuda: Usually Japanese language doesn't divide by word by word. Because English you have the spaces between each word. Our AI need to divide word by word by ourselves.

Seth Adler: And this is not how humans do it. So we have to teach AI our language in a way that we don't communicate that language. So that's difficult.

Akiko Fukuda: We do have 40 years history of how to handle Japanese language.

Seth Adler: Within IT?

Akiko Fukuda: So we do have the R and D big center inside our organization. In NTT we have one of the strongest analyzing technology in our original ... Yes.

Seth Adler: So we already did have the tool belt to deal with the fact that we knew that these issues would come up as far as language was concerned, but we're not used to the computer talking back to us right? So now it was very apparent what was going right and what was going wrong. Anything else that you would mention to your colleagues that are looking at cognitive solutions in terms of we rolled it out and then we had to change X, Y and Z. What else?

Akiko Fukuda: We don't have enough experience to understand what customer's business is. Because we originally from the networking service and we don't have to understand everything in terms of our customer's business.

Seth Adler: It's simple, it's here, you're connected everything's fine.

Akiko Fukuda: Exactly. We are not consultant but we need to be like that.

Seth Adler: You need to learn a new language now. Interesting. I have three final questions for you. I'll tell you what they are and then I'll ask you them in order. What is most surprised you at work? Along the way in your career? What is most surprised you in life? And then on the soundtrack of Akiko's life, one track one song that's gotta be on there.

Akiko Fukuda: It's really interesting question.

Seth Adler: Yes of course. Now the first question, what has most surprised you at work?

Akiko Fukuda: 20 years ago I haven't imagined I speak English.

Seth Adler: Oh, even 20 years ago.

Akiko Fukuda: Yes.

Seth Adler: Really?

Akiko Fukuda: Actually five years ago.

Seth Adler: Really?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes. It's surprising me.

Seth Adler: Wait so did you, I would imagine that you learn English growing up?

Akiko Fukuda: Of course. At school yes.

Seth Adler: But not really in an applicable way is your point. So even up until five years ago this was not really, you aren't conversational.

Akiko Fukuda: Right.

Seth Adler: But going over to MIT it made that have to happen I guess.

Akiko Fukuda: Exactly.

Seth Adler: Interesting. So you did not envision this whole global thing that you have. What's it like now, now that you're a global executive?

Akiko Fukuda: Until five years ago I just focus in domestic market. It was suddenly happened to me, the CEO of NTT, he already resigned but he selected me as a candidate of NTT. I was lucky actually.

Seth Adler: Why do you think he selected you? What does he see in you?

Akiko Fukuda: He knew my personality. So I think I'm open. So that's why he selected me.

Seth Adler: You're open to trying ...

Akiko Fukuda: Try to accept the other cultures. NTT needs to be global, as you may know NTT is what AT&T in US like. It used to be owned by government so just focus on domestic market. As I mentioned because of the Japanese market shrinking so we need to be global. So our executives think of our generation to be global.

Seth Adler: And he saw that even though you were only, I shouldn't say only. Even though you were specifically domestically focused he saw, he knew that you would be good globally.

Akiko Fukuda: I think so.

Seth Adler: That's so fascinating to me. And just based on his understanding of your personality being open.

Akiko Fukuda: Right.

Seth Adler: Wow, that's so interesting.

Akiko Fukuda: The other thing he selected me, I'm a woman.

Seth Adler: So this is important. We need to have, Akiko is a good representative, she's a woman as well. Let's get her out there. That's fantastic.

Akiko Fukuda: My aspiration at that time also, I will be the woman representative. Yes.

Seth Adler: So this is something that's important to you. Being a high level woman? Being a high level female executive?

Akiko Fukuda: Right exactly. In Japan it is still very hard to survive male dominant company.

Seth Adler: Interesting. I think I mentioned I'm generation X so in my lifetime I feel like it's gotten better. It seems like we still have some way to go. Is that fair?

Akiko Fukuda: Yes.

Seth Adler: All right. What's most surprised you in life?

Akiko Fukuda: It's similar to the working but I now have lot of friends in the world.

Seth Adler: Yeah.

Akiko Fukuda: Yes. Even in London. I met local friend yesterday in London.

Seth Adler: We're here in London exactly. From your MIT days I would imagine.

Akiko Fukuda: Exactly.

Seth Adler: What I love I also have global friends because my sister taught English in Japan, that's how I was there and I got to know at least a couple of people there. What I love about traveling globally is that everybody is so different and also everybody is just the same. You go over to the apartment, to the house you sit down you start talking, it's all the same.

Akiko Fukuda: This is what I learned.

Seth Adler: Interesting. All right now this is maybe the most different question. On the soundtrack of your life Akiko, one track one song that's gotta be on there?

I'll just interject. I can see that you're thinking. I went to a bar and I mentioned I went to a nightclub with my brother in law, that's a different story for another time. And sister. But I went to a bar and there was a Japanese band. I tried to talk to them after they played and they didn't speak English and I didn't speak Japanese but my brother in law was able to talk to them. My sister was able to talk to them. They didn't speak any English but they covered Elvis Presley so they did all Elvis Presley songs, it sounded English. I know the words so I was singing along with them. They didn't know any other English aside from the Elvis Presley songs. I very much appreciated that.

Akiko Fukuda: My mom love every Elvis Presley.

Seth Adler: So good right?

Akiko Fukuda: My favorite song that we went to karaoke at the MIT days a lot of times. One song I loved is I don't remember the song name but it's on my iPhone. Tonight gonna be a good day, good time. Do you know that song?

Seth Adler: I'm singing it in my mind. I can't remember who is the artist. It's somewhat more recent. Right?

Akiko Fukuda: Yeah.

Seth Adler: Is it the ... It's something, the Black Eyed Peas, the Black Eyed Peas right. So this is a very celebratory song. And you mentioned karaoke and I mentioned Elvis it's very interesting when I go to karaoke with my brother in law and sister which is a habit they picked up in Japan, I always sing Suspicious Minds from Elvis Presley. A song your mother of course would know right?

Akiko Fukuda: Yeah.

Seth Adler: Akiko, I can't wait to hear more about what happens with this cognitive journey that you're already on. I very much appreciate being, one of these people that you know in another country, how about that?

Akiko Fukuda: Thank you so much.

Seth Adler: And there you have Akiko Fukuda. We tend to open 24 hour support but we no longer have enough work force so AI solved those problems actually. Very interesting and a specific type of thing happening to that society but very much appreciated Akiko's time, very much appreciate yours, stay tuned.

Katie Sadler bw
Posted: 03/07/2018