Developing any chatbot that can be a challenge. When the chatbot has to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to create a more personal and emotional experience and reflect the character and voice of one of France’s most popular culture icons – Astérix – user expectations are going to be immense.
However, that was the challenge TSC, Sitel Group’s digital customer experience agency, accepted when it partnered with Compagnie des Alpes to build a chatbot designed to accompany visitors around one of the most popular tourist destinations in France, its Parc Astérix theme park right outside Paris.
Created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo in 1959, the Astérix comic books follow its titular hero – a Gaulle warrior from 50 BC – battling the Romans with help from his friends. As well as being the most popular comic series in France for the past 59 years, these comics have been translated into 100 languages, racked up global sales in excess of 325 million copies, inspired 13 films and in 1989, the Asterix theme park opened.
In addition to Parc Astérix, Compagnie des Alpes owns 11 of the world’s largest ski resorts and a further 12 theme parks and tourist attractions throughout the French-speaking world, that welcome a combined 26 million+ visitors each year.
“Our core business is sensations, emotion, and storytelling,” explains Guy Vassel, Deputy Managing Director of Compagnie des Alpes. “It’s only logical to use this sort of digital technology to see how we can better accompany our customers. However, for us, our investment is in achieving customer satisfaction. That is the focus.”
As a company synonymous with providing emotional and memorable experiences it understands that technology is only of use if it enhances an already strong digital customer experience; as Vassel points out, despite the buzz around things like chatbots at the moment: “Technology is just a tool.”
However, the chatbot is a technological tool of the highest quality. He is already able to answer 220 separate questions and is available to help visitors before, during and after a visit to the theme park. He can even tailor responses to individual users’ situations and preferences – whether they’re alone, with children or traveling by car or via public transit.
Regardless of the user profile, every interaction feels like a normal conversation with someone who just stepped out of the pages of an Astérix comic book.
“It was a unique challenge,” says Geoffrey Boulakia, TSC’s General Manager EMEA. “It meant imagining a real personality, in the brand’s image, but also taking an innovative technological approach, so users receive an immersive experience and a real service.”
One of the most novel aspects of the chatbot is that its user base extends to Parc Astérix employees.
“We wanted to take all of our employees with us on this journey,” explains Vassel. “What we have found is that you get very different answers whether you’re calling a call center, standing in a queue and asking a question or you’re asking a question in the restaurant.”
This chatbot, therefore, is an opportunity for homogenizing CX, bringing consistency to all channels and customer touch points as well as an innovative way of ensuring that the company’s employees are actively involved in the digital transformation process.
“So getting all of the employees on board and giving them all access to a tool which makes it easier to give correct, personalized answers was very useful,” Vassel continues.
“One of our convictions as a digital customer experience agency is that technology is here to help create enhanced human advisors,” explains Boulakia. “With a chatbot’s assistance, an agent can focus on interactions and responses that bring real value.”
Another principle is that a chatbot is never a “one-shot” or a gimmick to fill a gap. It is an opportunity to build and continually develop a new channel of communication so one should start small, continuously test and refine and then scale in line with the new data and insights.
The chatbot is a perfect example of TSC’s convictions in action. The project took nine months to complete, beginning with an ecosystem audit to see the strengths and weaknesses of Compagnie des Alpes’ existing systems plus careful benchmarking to identify the right Natural Language Processing (NLP) engine, before the bot’s design could begin in earnest.
However, as Vassel pointed out, “You cannot develop a theme park in three days, and you cannot develop a chatbot for a theme park in three days.”
A chatbot is only as good as its data, and here, the two companies did have a head start.
“People have been asking questions about our theme parks for 30 years,” says Vassel.
As such there was a wealth of data to draw on from the contact center, the website, the Parc Astérix Facebook page and from Facebook Messenger.
Using digital to enhance human interaction
When the chatbot soft-launched in June on the theme park’s website and Facebook’s Messenger platform, it performed remarkably well. With an initial 2000 users, 35,000 interactions, 6,400 different questions and one in two users saying they were more than satisfied with the experience.
Over the summer months, the chatbot will be put through its passes as the number of visitors to the theme park swells dramatically. Because all of the basics are right, and because all of the data and insights gathered are being used to improve the service continues, the chatbot will grow into his role.
“We have focused on automating the processing of the highest possible volume of interactions without trimming the human dimension, and thus are aiming for 200,000 interactions,” says Vassel. “We’re closely following both the volumes of conversations as well as the moments of the journey that work.”
The chatbot was designed from day one to be scalable regarding both capabilities and reach. Compagnie des Alpes’ ultimate ambition is to keep making the bot more powerful and more personal to the user. The company will then take the lessons learned to bring chatbots with similar performance but unique personalities to its other tourist properties.
As for where Compagnie des Alpes and TSC take their conversational business relationship next, what is clear is that with so much at stake in terms of customer experience and brand perception, there is no rush to jump on to a technological bandwagon.
Vocal assistants may well have everyone talking, but if the chatbot plans include the smart speaker, he will have to do so in a voice that resonates not just with the company’s brand.
With such a rich heritage and massive fan base, the chatbot is going to need a voice that sounds familiar and welcoming to generations of Astérix fans who have grown up with the comics, TV series and films if he wants to find his way into the living room or the car dashboard.