Could virtual agents have helped to prevent Bester saga?

By Ryan Falkenberg, 11 June 2023 – Originally published by EngineerIT.

If you’ve spent any time on LinkedIn or attended business conferences lately, you’re probably familiar with the phrase, “data is the new oil”. Meant to signify how valuable data can be, it’s now passed into the realm of cliche. But like all cliches, it’s reached that stage because it’s true. As a result, many organisations — from retailers to airlines and credit card companies — now claim that they’re primarily data organisations.

The trouble is, almost all of them (including public sector organisations) are collecting data that’s irrelevant at best or actively harmful at worst. To extend the oil metaphor, it’s a little like a refinery focusing on producing diesel when the market really needs petrol.

The trouble with bad data

The harm that can come from poor information gathering has been well illustrated in recent months with the Thabo Bester saga. Part of the reason that the convicted rapist and murderer was able to escape South Africa and flee to Tanzania with such ease is that his birth was never registered at Home Affairs.

In other words, he doesn’t have an identity number, document, or passport. In fact, the only department that had any record of him was the Department of Correctional Services. As a result, he was able to acquire and travel on an American passport (whether real or fraudulent) without raising any flags.

The periodic discovery of large numbers of ghost employees (people added to an organisation’s payroll even though they don’t work for it) in certain government departments also shows how costly bad information gathering can be.

In 2016, for example, the KwaZulu Natal education department froze the salaries of 4 000 ghost teachers. Paying the salaries of those non-existent employees would’ve cost tens of millions of Rands every month.

Gathering data indiscriminately in the hope that you’ll be able to filter what’s relevant can also be problematic. A 2021 study by Forrester and Dell Technologies, for instance, found that 68% of South African businesses are gathering data faster than they can use it. That means they’re likely dealing with large amounts of “junk” data.

While that data may be useless to the organisation, it’s incredibly valuable to cybercriminals and puts the organisation at risk of cyberattack. It’s also hardly surprising then that 63% of South Africans feel like they’re communicating with different departments rather than a single organisation.

How tech can help businesses gather the right information

In part, this bad information is down to the way organisations gather information. While things like purchase habits and online tracking can tell you a lot, sometimes an organisation needs more direct feedback. They typically try to get this feedback through mechanisms like surveys. But there are a couple of problems with surveys. One of the biggest is that they give limited options (even when in the shape of a so-called “dynamic form”), meaning that the information gathered has very little depth.

Think about it: when you want to get to know someone personally, you don’t have them fill in a form, you have a conversation with them. That’s where technologies like virtual agents come in. These conversation specialists can gather a lot of information by asking the right questions in a conversational way. That in turn means that people are more willing to talk about themselves.

More specifically, it means that organisations can understand their customer, supplier and staff needs. For all the advancements made in data gathering, that’s not something they’ve been easily able to do in the past. Critically, virtual agents allow organisations to gather that data in a way that feels natural and which doesn’t require them to go through the process of answering form questions that aren’t relevant to them.

Better info = better relationships

Having that improved understanding of customers, suppliers and staff helps you build deeper, more successful relationships. You don’t box people, and you make sure they feel heard. By gathering meaningful data, whether it relates to needs or feelings, ensures that your response can be tailored to each person’s specific context. This hyper-personalisation not only builds better relationships. It builds more profitable ones too.

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