Taking the sting out of traveling for Microsoft employees with a bot

Jan 16, 2019   |  

When Microsoft employees fly around the world for work, they do so to create a human connection.

Now those valuable face-to-face meetings are a bit easier, thanks to a non-human source—a bot.

The Microsoft Business Travel Letter Tool is a recently launched internal bot that makes the tedious process of filling out travel forms much easier for company employees, says Jay Clem, general manager of Human Resources IT for Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO).

“Our use case for our international travelers turned out to be an ideal scenario to show how our Microsoft Bot Framework can be used to quickly build a bot with a lot of value,” Clem says. “Since they started using our travel letter bot, our employees are spending 80 percent less time filling out travel forms. They’re also much happier—we’ve seen a 90 percent uptick in customer satisfaction.”

It used to be that company employees would laboriously fill out the same set of lengthy forms each time they wanted to travel internationally. For frequent travelers, this was particularly vexing.

Until now.

“Now all you have to do is fill out the online form one time,” says Joseph Jassey, the CSEO senior program manager who maintains and continues to develop the new bot. “Following that, the bot can generate most of the information on its own, with little manual input, which cuts down the number of mundane tasks our employees need to do.”

And employee users are liking the bot—a lot.

“Within the first few days, we had 40 out of 43 employees surveyed returning positive feedback about the experience,” says Carine Biesemeier, senior program manager in CSEO. “Our biggest hope for the automation was that it would feel natural and be a personable experience—just as if you are speaking with a person.”

When to build a bot

The new digital assistant, which is embedded in the company’s Human Resources portal, does not include first time international travelers, and this exclusion was a crucial part of the bot’s design.

Why?

It comes down to being careful about how much you tackle with an individual bot. Employees planning their first trip abroad have many different concerns to address, including general questions about travel and conduct in a new location, says Shiran Sathananthan, a CSEO principal program manager whose team led the engineering and deployment of the travel letter bot.

Sathananthan says it’s easy to create a bot that has so many user scenarios that it becomes ineffective.

“Given the myriad of ways there are to communicate the exact same ideas and questions, it can be challenging to translate the end user’s intent so that a bot can assist effectively,” he says.

To get ahead of this, limiting scope is critical.

“It’s important to not try to boil the ocean,” he says. “A bot is most effective when it answers fewer questions and has a specific scenario.”

Bots work best for manual, repetitive, predictable tasks—they are best at doing things like answering questions and resolving simple tasks. They are not as good when you need a large engineering effort or to build a complex scenario with lots of variables. “This ability to take on simple tasks is one of the reasons why Gartner identified bots as one of the ten most strategic trends of 2017,” Sathananthan says.

However, deciding when to build a bot is tricky.

You’re supposed to keep the number of things an individual bot does small, but that can lead to creating too many bots, which could lead to bloat. Conversely, creating fewer bots that have too broad of a scope or that try to handle too many scenarios can frustrate users.

The travel bot is one of many digital assistants that CSEO is using to better serve employees, says Brent Schnabel, a CSEO user experience (UX) designer who helped put together a Chatbot Toolkit that is being used guide how employees can build better bots. Each is built on the Microsoft Bot Framework, which is what the company uses to guide teams who want to build their own bots.

Beneficial for Human Resources too

The Human Resources employees who manage the Microsoft travel program are also getting a lot of value out of the new travel letter bot, Jassey says.

“The bot has dramatically reduced the number of tickets our HR practitioners have to deal with,” Jassey says.

Instead of having to help employees file loads of paperwork, the HR team is now using its time to make the traveling experience better.

Biesemeier pointed to automation as an example. “One of the challenges in creating a great employee experience is repetitive tasks, so we were looking at opportunities to automate processes,” she says.

It’s also helping with security—the travel letter bot also helps protect personal data.

“The bot can pull metadata about employees as well as their travel data, but we carefully designed it to not retrieve or store passport numbers,” Biesemeier says. Her role on the travel letter bot team was to gather requirements, identify scenarios, and define scope. She also led testing of the bot on HRWeb.

Backing out one step, the larger Microsoft Bot Framework that the team used to build the travel letter bot also makes the whole operation more efficient.

“The bot framework itself improves the self-service capabilities by doing the heavy lifting of answering bulk FAQs and reducing the shared service costs,” Biesemeier says. “We are utilizing virtual assistance to reduce cost of shared services by reducing FAQ traffic, and improving the overall employee experience.”

The travel letter bot also is one of the first in the company to meet the company’s strict accessibility standards, she said.

“We’re very proud that our bot is helping to set an internal standard for accessibility for employees with special needs,” Biesemeier says.

Advancing automation progress

The travel bot is built into HRWeb, the internal Human Resources web site that drives traffic to the bot and that socializes it.

Sathananthan would love to see the focus on bots like this one continue to strengthen and become more centralized.

“Frankly, employees are comfortable communicating with the bots, and as long as the automation returns correct information, this trust and comfort is maintained,” he says. “Whether or not the bot fulfills this is dependent on how the bot is designed, which circles back to what we discussed about scope.”

Trust is needed, and to be trusted means having consistent, accurate results. To be accurate, the bot must be able to pull the intent or key words from client input.

“For example, if someone writes, ‘I need to travel to India on the 15th of December,’ that is a rich piece of information to make use of,” Sathananthan says. “If the bot only registers ‘India,’ it is missing the other details being given.”

All the employees who worked on the project all say they are excited to see where the company can go with the travel letter bot and others like it. They believe their hopes for progress are well timed as big changes are happening at Microsoft and within CSEO to advance automation and productivity.

“We wanted to make sure we get this right from the beginning,” Schnabel says. “We worked really hard to get the design right on the travel letter bot because it’s laying the ground work for what’s to come.”

It’s all about getting user experience right.

“Well-crafted UX starts with a deep understanding of the audience and the process involved,” Schnabel says. “To get this business travel letter bot right, we researched employees who travel for work—their pain points, requirements, and the process they needed to follow. Then we implemented the foundations of Conversational User Interface (CUI) design.”

As for the travel bot itself—the team is most proud of its work to make the bot seem human.

“It paid off too, and it’s this kind of innovation that will drive us forward as a company,” Biesemeier says. “Our leadership team saw the original opportunity for automation, and once we all got together, we were able to make it happen.”

Learn more about automation and the company’s bot framework. To keep up with the changes being driven out of Microsoft CSEO, follow our content on Showcase.

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