• ICS AI

AI Assistant discovers 45% of prospective student queries come out of hours

Updated: Aug 8

Deploying AI at critical parts of the student journey with Durham University


Durham is using Conversational AI to redesign their university. As their strategic AI partner, we have been helping them create custom solutions for different problems. During a recent webinar (watch webinar recording here) we caught up with Beth Gordon, Head of Collaboration Services at Durham University, and talked about our working relationship, digital transformation progress and how human parity AI can assist students every step of the way.


Beth, you've been on a digital transformation journey. What triggered you looking into Artificial Intelligence? Can you tell us why you chose enrolment and recruitment as your first phase?


When we first learnt about ICS.AI we had already pulled together a digital strategy for the University. It was pre-pandemic so some of that had to be revised accordingly. The crucial part of the strategy was to help improve the recruitment process. We wanted to provide 24/7 support to prospective students. It is essential especially for our international candidates, where traditionally we could not always communicate with them in their time zone.


What else did your digital strategy focus on?


Innovation was the absolute key driver for our digital strategy, particularly for the AI section, and it continues to be a few years on. The pandemic made remote working a higher priority for the University and our students, and so the timeframes had to be adjusted. We're now very much focused on extending our innovation in AI.


Beth Gordon, Durham University

We worked with you to develop your recruitment and admissions Assistant, Holly. It went live in 2020. Can you share some of the benefits you've seen? Both from the recruitment team and for the University as a whole?


Holly is an AI Assistant with a specific skill around enrolment and admissions. Holly has successfully answered 98% of student enquiries (41,000 queries) and logged follow-up actions into CRM. The most significant piece of data Durham learned, and perhaps the most surprising, was that 45% of all queries have been out-of-hours.

The biggest benefit has been the 24/7 access to prospective international students regardless of time zones. The beauty of Holly is that it works like a human assistant. So, from a user experience and outcomes perspective, there is very little difference between contacting our enquiries team for frequently asked questions and speaking to a chatbot that can answer on our team's behalf. It has benefits for both sides. The users are getting answers back in human language and in real-time. The team are free from managing large volumes of enquiries that are easy to answer first-line. They use gained time to dig into the queries that take the extra bit of human effort.


The Assistant also integrates into your Microsoft Dynamics CRM instance. What role does this play in the overall solution?


It's an integral part of it. It's where we hold the data for prospective students so it's the ideal place to surface the most frequently asked queries.


Were there any other insights you discovered from the first phase of this project


The Assistant is picking up most first-line queries. The pandemic skews the results a bit because of the challenges with A-Level results and a different influx in what we would usually see with student recruitment. From here on out, we'll be able to give a much better assessment against the baseline. But certainly, the enquiries team could not have gotten through without the help of Holly in the last couple of years!


The success of Holly gave us both confidence that this technology has a key part to play within the University. Can you talk to me about what your next area of focus is?


Holly UX

I'm from the IT section of the University where we had already started looking at the use of AI Assistants. So, we had a head-start on understanding the opportunity it could deliver. When we saw the outcomes from Holly, the next step was obvious. I wanted to steal a bit of that action for our department and see what we could do to improve the experience and volume of queries regarding internal IT support.


Did you have the same visibility of the sorts of challenges from an IT helpdesk perspective as the team have from international students?


This year there is a definite increase in queries that can be answered with frequently asked questions content surfaced from elsewhere. If we can do that using human language, all the better. And again, that frees up our IT support team to answer to the more complex challenges.


Our clients reference giving teams time back as one of the key benefits of our solution. Can you talk about the new Assistant we're building for you now? What will it mean for your students and staff?


When we first started working together, we were after a few different things. We knew the out-of-the-box LiveChat functionality was something we'd want to include – the ability to surface FAQs. But what made this a strategic partnership was your ability to customise the solution to deliver what we want. So, for instance, we've recently managed to pull together a piece of automation built within Durham to be surfaced by the AI Assistant. It takes us into a different league versus the off-the-shelf products.


Your latest Assistant focuses on reducing tickets coming through to the help desk. What other benefits are you hoping to achieve, and what are the measures of success?


Our main driver is ticket reduction. We want to see more queries resolved first time through the Assistant, but we need to ensure our users get the best support. It doesn't always mean an immediate answer. A query could be routed through to the right people or handled in the right way. We want to build the right relationship with our users. The first-time fix is our ideal measurement, but we also need to focus on the quality of the information provided.


The analytics that were useful with Holly can now help you identify where students or staff are trying to self-solve in other areas. Is it one of the most exciting things about this technology?


Absolutely. And the great thing about having everything recorded digitally, rather than just relying on the human queries that come through, is that you can see what was asked and how it was answered. It means we've got information on all the questions we've been asked previously, and we can use them for testing. Seeing how the Assistant handles them helps us learn and grow.


We've talked about enrolment and admissions and the support you provide to students before they arrive at the University, as well as students and staff now benefiting from the IT Support Assistant. Where else are you thinking about deploying this solution?


There are many other use cases across the University where teams are dealing with repetitive enquiries. If we can try and reduce that workload, whether it's in HR, Finance, or Payroll, it will just help sift out the enquiries that can be managed by the Assistant, freeing up time for better support for our students.


Durham University has a fantastic reputation for delivering a high-quality service. Hopefully, the AI technology across different use cases will not only enhance it but also free up resources for staff to keep improving it further.

I think it's vital Clients spend time considering the branding and UI because it will encourage users to identify with the Assistant. Talk to me about your naming and branding. How did you come up with the names for your AI Assistants?



Holly was named after the Enrolment team's building. For the IT Support Assistant, we wanted to give it a bit of personality, so we put some branding around it. Some team members came up with the design; it was hand drawn by someone within my team. We decided on Chat-e Cathy to link it to "come to Chat-e Cathy for your queries". And, of course, Cathy is short for Cathedral, which Durham is infamous for.


Finally, there's a huge opportunity to connect existing or new automated processes to conversational user experiences within the Assistant. Can you share some insight into the automation you have already built that will be going into Chat-e Cathy?


There was interest within Durham around the concept of 'low-code' or 'no-code' development and how we can utilise the Microsoft Power platform. We had already been thinking about process improvements and automation. As we started working on the chatbot with ICS.AI, we wondered if we could just launch some of these automations to extend their value. We looked at IT support tickets for requesting software licenses, which is exceptionally high at the start of term. These requests are simple; we can group requests and set rules about who gets what, so these shouldn't need to be carried out by a human. We built the automation around this internally and then worked with ICS.AI to launch it into Cathy. The results have been fantastic, and it's seen as providing real value. We are seeing interest from other departments, i.e., cyber security. Some parts of the process are now entirely self-service. It is where the qualitative benefits come into it; we haven't reduced calls here. A call is logged, but the answer is fully automated from start to finish without human interaction.


What I love about this AI-driven IT solution is that it is fully integrated. The user isn't getting passed around between IT and another Assistant. Users can ask about another area, for instance, timetables and get an answer. Finding problems that can be solved by an end-to-end solution is where many users see tremendous value. There is no limit as to how many automations the Assistant can support.

As a final question - where do you recommend starting for Universities looking at an AI Assistant solution?


When you think about your use cases for AI, target a particular area of your organisation first. Focus on delivering good service in that area. Once it's been proven, you can expand rapidly into other areas. We know; we've done it!


That's been fantastic, Beth, thank you.

Crispin Bloomfield, former Director of Operations at Durham University and now Education Architect at Microsoft, joined the event and commented: "Great to see how things have evolved and progressed. Kudos to the ICS.AI team for pushing things forward and to Beth and the team at Durham for being at the vanguard!"


This article was edited from a live transcription during a webinar originally recorded on 26.07.22. Watch the full recording here.


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