Flow.ai is a start-up in Tilburg that aims to become the global leader in the application of chatbots for customer service. They supply software that lets users design workflows without any specific programming knowledge. The challenge they face is streamlined growth - to ensure that they also stay in the flow.
Let’s suppose that your brand-new tumble dryer makes a rattling noise the first time you use it. You immediately send a WhatsApp message to the supplier’s customer service department. You receive a response in seconds: a number of questions to help you identify where the rattle is coming from. For example, have you cleaned the filter yet?
If the machine is still not running properly after you have done everything you can do yourself to troubleshoot the problem, you receive a message asking you to schedule an appointment with a technician. Once the technician has successfully solved the problem, you are asked whether you are happy with the outcome.
The owner of the tumble dryer in this example was Gijs van de Nieuwegiessen. He is the co-founder and CEO of Flow.ai and wanted to personally evaluate how the chatbot would handle his question. And yes, it did a fantastic job. The company in question is Samsung, which jumped at the opportunity of using a chatbot 24 hours a day to handle the initial contact with customers.
Flow.ai (pronounced as you would say it in English) develops software for creating smart chatbots and voice interfaces. This software allows companies to deploy artificial intelligence in an easily accessible way to communicate faster and more conveniently with their customers. Pretty specialised, because the underlying technology for a virtual assistant of this type is extremely complex.
Van de Nieuwegiessen has been fascinated by direct interaction between humans and computers for years. After completing his studies in this field, he set up his own consultancy and worked with a number of insurers. His collaboration with one of those insurers involved testing a method for reporting damage claims via WhatsApp. The results were very acceptable, however the idea unfortunately never made it into production.
He felt that the concept was worth pursuing though so, in 2016, he and his colleague Murat Ozmerd started taking on assignments for developing customised chatbot systems for use in customer service. The chatbot asks the initial questions, collects relevant information and then transfers the customer to the right employee. “Customer service organisations can reduce their costs by about 20% with this solution”, says Van de Nieuwegiessen.
Anybody can use the Flow.ai platform to develop a custom chatbot without having to have a lot of programming knowledge. A chatbot learns to recognise words and sentences in a specific context. After opening an account, users can start to build their own system and set up their own ‘conversation flows’ on an online platform. Flow.ai also includes features for training the underlying artificial intelligence to give customers the right answers straight away.
As the hype around artificial intelligence built up to a peak, they saw an opportunity for developing their own tool for this in 2017. And Sander Wubben joined them as the third partner in Flow.ai. A real asset, as Wubben had a PhD in artificial intelligence and language technology from Tilburg University.
In that same year, interest in the fledgling start-up grew exponentially. The threesome were approached by the prestigious Techstars accelerator programme, which helps start-ups grow. The programme involved a stay of several months in Toronto, a city with a unique mix of leading universities, labs and innovation institutes that is considered a hotspot of Artificial Intelligence. The Techstars programme gave them access to mentors, advice, office space and several training courses.
“Programmes of this type focus on finding investors for tech companies in Canada and the USA”, says Van de Nieuwegiessen. “Considering the phase we were in as a company, that was not going to work out. If we wanted to follow that route, we would have to settle there permanently. But we decided to stay in the Netherlands because we didn’t want to uproot our families.”
Even so, they learnt a lot from this Canadian adventure. “We gained a much better understanding of our business potential; for example, the type of problem we could actually solve and who would be interested. We also learnt how to approach and relate to investors and how to handle marketing effectively. And being allowed to look behind the scenes at Apple was incredibly cool. Outsiders are not allowed in under normal circumstances.”
After their return in April 2018, they put all their time and effort into product development, marketing and sales. That same year, Flow.ai was selected as the winner of the ‘Brabant Start-up Award’. The company has grown and now employs twelve people. With team members in the Netherlands, Ukraine and the USA, they now have a multidisciplinary team in the field of artificial intelligence, user experience, engineering, marketing and consultancy.
In addition to setting up the platform that allows customers to design their own chatbot, they supply their software to a range of commercial partners. They also collaborate directly with businesses in the Benelux, mainly in retail. The client base includes Samsung Benelux, Wehkamp, MediaMarkt, Deutsche Telekom and Achmea.
“We are on a rollercoaster ride at the moment”, says Van de Nieuwegiessen. “Just take a purchase process at Samsung for example. There’s an awful lot involved.”
Their new challenges lie in the area of sales, marketing and further expansion of their organisation. They want to be the first brand name on people’s lips when it comes to quality chatbots, both in Europe and the United States. And they also have concrete plans to expand their own organisation and hire more employees.
Although the company’s headquarters will remain in Tilburg, their ambition is to become a global player. “If you are a tech company, your geographical location is not so relevant. Particularly now that the coronavirus pandemic means that we mostly work from home. The attractive things about Tilburg are acceptable rents and the good availability of human talent. Finding good IT professionals is quite a challenge, but we are more successful here in Brabant than elsewhere. Eindhoven in particular is a huge magnet at the moment.”
Flow.ai sees a wealth of future possibilities for chatbots and voice control. Nevertheless, artificial intelligence will never replace customer service employees, in the opinion of Van de Nieuwegiessen. “If you call about your mother’s washing machine, the chatbot will have problems. People will always be required to help a customer in a different context.”
Even so, artificial intelligence can still deliver significant efficiency gains when used for the first customer contact. With smart cost savings as a result. He feels that being able to help customers immediately in this way is pretty cool. “They don’t get frustrated, because they receive an immediate reaction to the questions. In terms of costs, it would be almost impossible to offer the same level of service in a human interaction.”
The mentality that is so typical in Brabant has also helped them find their own flow in their rapidly expanding company. “People are laid-back, but still on the ball. And our network here is also very useful, because people always want to help you move forward. Eindhoven Airport has a good connection to the Ukraine, with just one transfer. Flying from Schiphol would be much more time-consuming. Everything is running really smoothly here in Brabant.”
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