Author: Benjamin Boesch, Head – Digital and eCommerce, VFS Global
The paradigm shift in the way we consume products and services today is nothing short of tectonic. Even 10 years ago, could we have imagined armchair shopping for groceries, apparel, or navigating through the streets of a foreign country via virtual tours? We can potentially plan and book entire travel itineraries – flights, accommodation, local tours, complete with chauffeur service and 24/7 WiFi connectivity, even apply for a visa, without ever leaving our homes!
With the growth in travel outpacing the global economy in the last couple of years, these changes not just impact the amount we travel, but also shape the way we travel.
The GCC outbound travel spend is forecast to touch over 90 billion dollars by 2020, and the outbound tourism market is set to grow by a projected 4.3 percent by 2020 (Statista). These colossal spends and growing volumes of travellers are heralding the onset of innovations and disruptions that are high on customer-centricity, flexibility and convenience. In this expanding marketplace, leveraging digital technologies including artificial intelligence and machine learning, to enhance customer experience have become an urgent reality.
Even in the area of visa application, usually driven by government-mandated policy and process, we are seeing and conceptualising the application of new digital technologies for a better experience. While brick and mortar setups and face-to-face interactions still hold a lot of value for governments, they are nevertheless gradually becoming cognizant of citizens’ demand for greater speed, convenience, and customisation in government-to-citizen services. To effectively integrate public-facing governance models into a tech-enabled framework, the digital/online channel must continue to develop as a support to the traditional models.
AI puts focus on individual preferences
Far from being the stuff of science-fiction, Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered solutions are increasingly commonly encountered, even in the travel services industry. Leveraging Natural Language Processing (NLP) engines to mimic human interactions, they provide a high level of customer value with minimal error, high security and problem-solving capabilities.
I would go so far as to say that AI has even turned traditional business strategy on its head. Often, solutions were conceptualised at a demographic level, i.e. customised for a group of people in a similar age/interest level. Now, AI allows organisations to customise solutions for an individual, recognising the highly unique preferences each of us has, especially while travelling.
The potential of AI in citizen services
The transformative applications of AI are steadily being leveraged by governments as well, a few examples being the use of facial recognition to identify missing children, real time analysis across border control, and sentiment analysis to understand public opinion.
Especially in the visa processes space, which is defined by its very nature as having multiple layers of checks, the potential of Artificial Intelligence is enormous.
In fact, the first chatbot in the visa services industry, ViVA, was recently launched by VFS Global for Australia visa applicants residing in India, and Italy visa applicants residing in Bahrain. Created with unique technology adapted to the visa and passport services industry, ViVA provides round-the-clock and highly nuanced responses to applicant queries on visa application processes, categories, rules and regulations, and contact information. ViVA can handle 10,000 enquiries per second for 24×7, or 864 million in a day, thus significantly reducing the turnaround time for applicant queries and providing invaluable support to customer service teams.
To take a step further often, it is important to think two steps ahead! And a chatbot like ViVA has exactly this ability. For instance, if you are trying to track your passport or visa, it will not only give you a status update, but will also provide information you did not ask for – such as, what are your pick -up or courier delivery options once the document is processed. Similarly, if you’re filling up a visa application form, and pause too long over a certain entry, it will automatically pop up and offer to assist you through the rest of the process. We have received such positive feedback for ViVA, and are in process of expanding it in other locations.
In the next part of this article, Boesch discusses the contribution of voice assistants to the travel experience, as well as advances in travel planning and identity data management.