Our voice bots are learning Spanish

For some time now, when customers of DKV Seguros in Spain have ordered a new insurance card, a voice bot has helped to process their requests quickly. What’s special about this digital helper: It was implemented with the know-how of the ERGO voice team in Düsseldorf. The bot is one of the first results of our internationalisation strategy that customers will see, says ERGO CDO Mark Klein: “Since the beginning of this year, we have been systematically making the knowledge and systems of our core technologies in the areas of robotics, artificial intelligence and voice available to colleagues in other countries. If we want to be successful though, taking a 'this is how it’s done' approach would be completely inappropriate. Our implementation model is centralised-decentralised.”


If a voice bot is to do its job properly, a translation engine in the background has to translate speech into text and text into speech. One might think a machine doesn’t care what language you feed it. But that’s not quite the way it is! Because Spanish is spoken very quickly compared to German, even a simple “sí” can sometimes get lost. The machine doesn’t switch back to “listening” mode fast enough. Although this problem was also known to happen with German bots, the level of severity was new to our voice team and had to be tackled from the very beginning when they set up the Spanish version. Welcome to the adventure known as internationalisation, where we all learn new things from day 1.

All three of ERGO Digital Ventures’ technology competency centres are intensively involved in this strategy building block, which is also important for ERGO in general. At ERGO and DKV in Belgium alone, over 20 RPA (robotic process automation) machines are expected to process millions of business transactions by 2025. The planned figures for Greece, Spain and the Baltic states are nearly as high. And that’s just for robotics, not to mention artificial intelligence and voice. Some teams now spend almost a third of their time transferring the know-how they have acquired in Germany to the other locations. These colleagues get together on a daily and weekly basis to implement the programme.

Although we’re only in year one of a total of five years, the team has already reached a number of milestones. In the Baltic states, for example, a regional RPA team for life and non-life insurance has been established, and two robots for the topics of money laundering and claims handing have already been launched. In Belgium, projects in the areas of artificial intelligence, online marketing and CRM have begun, together with a host of other initiatives. In Spain, a national RPA team has been established and the first bot has been launched. There are two voice bots in addition to that. In Greece, four robots are expected to be in use by the end of this year, and detailed roadmaps for the use of voice technology are now in place for Thailand as well.


Trying to build robots in Vilnius from Düsseldorf – what could go wrong?

We opted for a hybrid implementation model that works centrally-decentrally. All of the countries benefit from the shared know-how of the technology centres, use the same technologies and blueprints, and in some cases also the same platforms, which are made available via clouds. That’s the central part. We will build the implementation teams themselves locally, i.e. decentrally, in each country. Centralised support, decentralised implementation – that’s how you could describe our hybrid model in a nutshell. You could say that the local competence centres have taken on the role of an internal management consultancy. But the actual implementation can only be done on-site.

In the voice area for example, speech is tricky, as I already described above. We’ve carried out numerous tests at the competence centre in which we had the bots answer only slightly differently – in German. However, even a minor change like that sometimes evokes completely different client reactions. For the fine-tuning we need native speakers from time to time. Another example: the Baltic states. We only have one ERGO entity there, but it operates in three countries – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. There are different languages, laws and regulations in all three countries. So there as well, we need to take local nuances into account in order to set up suitable robots.

Localised implementation is also – and especially – important because the teams are then much more highly motivated. People don’t want to be constantly told what to do, they want to be able to contribute on their own terms. Once colleagues realise the benefits of the technology, they take the projects into their own hands and roll out the applications much more efficiently.

Plenty of challenges 

The German technology teams have delivered impressively. New robots, voice and AI applications are being released every month. In the RPA area, with 15 new bots in Germany alone, the last six months were the most productive ever. With new approaches in areas such as peer programming, and together with the various business divisions, we were able to step up the pace even more. However, anyone who believes the same pace can simply be duplicated in the other countries is wrong. The challenges are sometimes overwhelming.

ERGO hasn’t always been a global company. Rather, it has grown together over the last few years and decades. Accordingly, we’re speaking with organisations that were previously independent, with different IT systems, customer management styles and approaches to the market. We can’t simply create synergies by transferring our German processes to another country. As such, good consulting is crucial. The results can’t be reused one-to-one, but at least the findings can.

Language barriers within the project teams are also a challenge. We all speak English quite well. It’s more difficult, however, when a German programmer has to look over a Lithuanian client letter with a Lithuanian specialist team – and together they all have to consolidate the content and applicable regulations. That’s where it gets more complicated.  


Sharing know-how – and receiving it in turn

International cooperation is also a cultural learning journey for the teams. Although the challenges are sometimes considerable, you can see that the colleagues enjoy growing together across borders. Everyone is enthusiastic, open and professional. But every country also has its own characteristics. For example, the robotics colleagues in Düsseldorf were very impressed by the highly professional project management, self-sufficiency and level of organisation in Greece.

In Spain, data protection is considered to be almost even more important than here in Germany. Our voice colleagues experienced that first-hand. When asked to give their consent, significantly more Spanish users answer “no” than do German users. In Belgium on the other hand, the RPA cases are so large and complex that they are comparable to a large-scale IT project. There, you work in multiple safety loops in order to make as few mistakes and thus cause as few delays as possible.

Individual countries had already worked with certain technologies prior to the current strategy initiative. In India and Poland for example, robots that do very good work were being used even earlier. The effect of the current “community efforts” will be significantly greater though. Everyone is learning from each other. The findings from solving all the challenges flow into the knowledge pool, from which everyone then profits over time. A cloud infrastructure could be developed in Belgium, for example, that is also interesting for Greece and eventually for everyone else too, including Germany.

ERGO will thus become even more attractive for the next dimension, e.g. for when we will be able to offer voice applications to third-party vendors from outside of the ERGO world. ERGO is the industry leader in voice assistants. Most of all, we’re showing customers all over the world ERGO’s understanding of digitalisation, i.e. that we always put the customer-centricity of processes, products and services first. And with the new ways of working and new technologies, we’re also fostering an attractive work environment across the globe.

With the “central-decentral” model, everyone benefits from the strengths, spirit of innovation and diversity of all of the ERGO Group’s segments. This will help us to become the leading digital insurer in Germany and in international markets as well. I am already looking forward to 2025, when we’ll be able to stick little green flags on a globe for all the countries ERGO operates in: mission accomplished. The indicators are already looking great that we’ll get there!

Text: Mark Klein

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