It has taken over two years of hard slog on the “smell of an oily rag”, but a growing stream of overseas enquiries has convinced David Hayes that his multilingual chat system, Jeeves.Plus, is touching a nerve amongst hoteliers and other businesses struggling to rebuild revenue streams as the northern summer tourist season takes off.
Designed for contact centre operators and others interacting with customers on a regular basis, Jeeves.Plus automatically translates between English and a bevy of other languages to support a use case that Hayes – a former premium-rate mobile services executive and consumer strategy consultant – had in mind when he began the effort years ago.
Early conversations with hotelier Jerry Schwartz – whose Sofitel, Rydges, Mercure and other hotel brands are ubiquitous across Australian capital cities – made Hayes aware of hoteliers’ challenges in upselling ancillary services like spa treatments, day tours, room service and entertainment to guests that often speak little or no English.
“When you get, say, a Chinese tourist coming into the reception,” Hayes explains, “if they don’t engage with you other than providing a license or passport and credit card, they don’t understand what the hotel has to offer – and they’re not going to spend there.”
Particularly due to COVID-19 restrictions and plummeting traveller numbers, hotels face an even bigger imperative to maximise guest revenues – ideally by engaging better with loyal customers so they spend more, stay longer, and come back more often.
Yet when those customers don’t speak English well, interactions are limited to basic conversations and gesticulations that make it hard to convey everything that a property has to offer.
Jeeves.Plus addresses this issue by allowing guests to SMS a message in their native language to a hotel mobile number.
The message is automatically translated to English for the hotel customer-service staff to read. Responses entered in English are translated back to the guest’s language, which is automatically detected and tracked to provide a seamless multilingual interaction.
Keywords such as ‘menu’ or ‘concert’ can be flagged, so that when they are detected, guests can be given links to specific services or information sources.
“It’s a perfect vehicle for a very simple methodology to communicate with a multi-lingual population,” Hayes says.
Climbing the tower of Babel
Hotels are only one use case for the technology, which is based on Google Translate and also supports WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and web-based live chat – as well as planned connectors to business platforms like SalesForce.com and Zoho.
Hayes has recently fielded enquiries from Russia, partnerships with a Dubai-based software integrator and a Philippines-based contact centre outsourcer, and conversations with local councils and state government departments that can struggle to deliver equitable services to citizens from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB).
Multilingual outreach has been flagged by European Union, UNESCO, Red Cross Australia and other authorities as a critical part of the COVID-19 response, with Australian authorities doubling down on outreach to NESB migrants as they work to contain the spread of coronavirus.
An automated chat and translation service, Hayes says, can simplify this outreach by providing a simple, universally accessible way to field enquiries from NESB citizens – without having to hire and staff a contact centre to access specific language skills.
Using online chat in a contact centre environment lets one customer service representative (CSR) service dozens of customers per hour – making it many times less expensive than human operators, with the added benefit of allowing any CSR to service customers no matter what language they speak.
“Managing those conversations in a cost-effective and cost-efficient manner has been a challenge for a lot of companies,” he said.
British authorities caused an uproar several years ago when it was revealed that local councils had spent $20m (£11m) on language services in a single year, with other agencies contributing to a total $184m (£100m) annual bill.
With Australian local governments home to residents speaking many dozens of languages, providing multilingual support around COVID-19, and other communications, is likely to be similarly expensive.
Such applications are a natural home for Jeeves.Plus, Hayes says, noting that the platform is currently onboarding customers in hospitality, aged care, and health.
It is also proving useful as a tool for communicating with hearing-impaired customers, and is attracting interest from pandemic-hit contact centres overloaded by staff reductions and demand surges.
“COVID-19 has enabled us to have conversations that we were never going to have,” Hayes explains, “and we’re getting some very nice traction.
“Jeeves is climbing up the mountain, and it’s exciting to see the results of all the efforts over the last two-and-a-half years.”