The funding of French startup Mindsay may be small news. But interviews with its customers Iberia and CWT suggest that a second wave of chatbot technology has stopped frustrating travelers with as many misunderstandings as the earlier tech did. That's a big deal for the sector.
Accor and Paris Aeroports have participated in a $10 million Series A fundraising for the Paris-based chatbot maker Mindsay, the companies said Wednesday. Venture firm White Star Capital led the round.
Accor and Paris Aeroports are customers of Mindsay, which rebranded itself Wednesday from Destygo.
“Two years ago, Accor spotted Mindsay as a company that was way ahead of the curve in conversational marketing,” said Thibault Viort, CEO of new businesses at Accor, adding that the startup’s recent growth in the travel sector justified additional funding.
Chatbots aren’t new, though. As early as 2008 some airlines and railways began using virtual assistants for their websites or, more recently, via platforms like Facebook Messenger and WeChat.
However, the technology used to have more flaws.
“Customers used to be frustrated that they would have to closely match the handful of phrases a bot knew or else they wouldn’t get useful responses,” said Patrice Simon, chief technology officer of CWT, the U.S.-based travel management company formerly known as Carlson Wagonlit Travel.
“Today the technology has advanced, so a customer can now often have a conversation where the bots use context to interpret a customer’s intent and react relevantly,” said Simon, who oversees new product development at CWT.
CWT is testing Mindsay. In the past, CWT sent emails prodding business travelers to add hotels to their flight bookings. Now, with three clients, it is sending text messages that open into chat-based conversations and prod travelers to book.
“Customers are engaging with the chatbot three times more than with the email,” said Simon. “Bots no longer have to be in an FAQ [frequently asked questions] mode, which is why it works.”
Two weeks ago, Iberia’s iBot messaging service sold its first plane tickets, marking a new phase in its use of artificial intelligence. That’s a trick the previous wave of chatbot technology couldn’t easily offer in a way that seamlessly integrated with an airline’s other software.
The Spanish airline hired Mindsay to build its bot shortly after the startup’s founding in 2016 and after the startup joined the travel startups accelerator Hangar 51 run by Iberia’s parent company International Airlines Group.
Iberia plans to link Mindsay’s technology with the data in its Iberia Plus loyalty program.
“Once we do that, when a customer opens the Iberia app and uses the chat to ask for a boarding pass, we’ll be able to instantly provide it,” said Gabriel Perdiguero, chief transformation officer at Iberia. “By linking accounts, we’ll already recognize them with their loyalty profile information and we won’t need the bot to ask so many questions.”
CEO Guillaume Laporte co-founded his startup with Chief Operating Officer Ilias Hicham and Chief Technology Officer Pierre Pakey on the premise that the bots would continually learn to get better using the latest in machine learning techniques.
Their approach included detecting when a bot hesitates to answer a question, flagging the conversation for a human to analyze what may have gone wrong and tell the computer how it might have interpreted things differently.
“We quickly learned that many travel companies have huge development road maps and don’t want to allocate engineering resources to maintaining a chatbot,” said Laporte. “So we built tools that empower non-technical people on business teams and in customer support to make the tweaks and integrations necessary.”
Iberia and Charles de Gaulle airport each have one person tasked to review the conversations for improvement and smooth integrations.
For Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, a ski lift company in France, Mindsay powers a smart assistant that provides different responses depending on the weather forecasts, and works with the operator to fine-tune the answers.
Integration into various customer relationship software, such as Zendesk and Salesforce, has helped to smooth out operational workflows, Laporte said.
Iberia is a good example. The airline had previously hesitated to adopt chatbots, Perdiguero said. It waited for experts to fix some of the technology’s early problems, such as accuracy of responses and interoperability with customer relationship management systems.
Now Iberia is fully on board. It runs its chatbot on its mobile app and via Facebook Messenger and is branching into voice-activated internet interactions with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. It aims within two years to enable customers who choose to do so to act fully digitally at all stages.
By the end of 2020, Mindsay, which has 40 workers, plans to grow to 120 employees in Paris, Madrid, and the United States.
The chatbot sector may be having a minor gold rush. In 2017 Booking.com acquired travel chatbot maker Evature, and last year American Express bought the travel chatbot maker Mezi.
Skift named Mindsay, under its former Destygo name, one of last year’s top startups to watch. We’ll continue to monitor its progress in this second wave of new tech.
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Photo credit: An airline passenger uses Iberia's customer service chatbot, Ibot, which is powered by Mindsay, a technology vendor that has raised a Series A round of funding. Iberia