Learning the language: the future of AI chatbots in China and Thailand

November 1, 2019

Learning the language: the future of AI chatbots in China and Thailand

AI chatbots are playing an increasingly significant role in the race to connect with consumers in the most seamless and engaging way. Shin Wee Chuang, co-founder and CEO of Pand.AI, developer of award-winning AI chatbots in financial services, shares his story about entering the Chinese market, the development of AI chatbots in Thailand and the technology’s bright future.

Why did you enter the Nanjing Overseas Talent Startup Contest and how did it help Pand.AI?

I first learned about the contest on my Facebook page. I was interested in joining it because the competitors got 10 minutes on stage to talk about their solutions, so the expected return on investment was very high. Fortunately, my team was one of the winners at the preliminary round in Singapore, so we had a chance to go to Nanjing to compete in the grand finale with teams from around the world. We won one of the grand prizes, which gave us access to the talent program organized by the Nanjing government. The government also gave us a very generous monetary reward for incorporating a company in Nanjing, which included free accommodation and office space for three years. So there was a good incentive for us to start doing business in China. 

What experiences have you gained from doing business in Nanjing?

I had previously spent more than six years in Shanghai, so I was familiar with China. However, through the contest I was introduced to other parts of China. I met officials from the Nanjing administration and I started to understand how the Chinese government works, which is fascinating. I now have the opportunity to operate my business in a second-tier city in China which enables me to better appreciate the challenges and opportunities in this country.

What is the landscape for AI chatbots in China? 

AI chatbots are widely adopted in China. Many types of AI chatbots are used by companies to enhance their operational efficiency. What is more promising is that we are seeing consumers interact with chatbots in their daily lives. Human-machine interactions through AI chatbots are quite prevalent, especially in the financial services. This is not limited to banks or insurance companies, as other smaller financial players in the market are also using the technology. I know of a financial institution in China that is already using AI chatbots to handle more than 70% of call center volume. 

What is your strategy to enter the Chinese market?

China was not part of our initial plan. We didn’t expect to win the award at the Nanjing contest, but we got so much support from the government by doing so. After that, we formulated a strategy to enter China. Our first step was to build on the support from the Nanjing government, hoping it would open doors for us with financial institutions in the city. Our second step is to bring solutions that we had already created into China, especially for companies that we were already serving in Singapore, Malaysia, and elsewhere, which have a presence in China. Over time, and if we work hard enough, we expect local and foreign financial institutions will adopt our solutions and help us grow more quickly in China.

What advice do you have for other startups looking to expand their business in China? 

One of the things to consider is whether they have something to offer that is significantly better than other existing solutions in China. The Chinese today are very different from the generation five or 10 years ago, because of the influx of foreign technology and domestic innovation. This means startups have to offer something truly innovative to succeed. Secondly, I would encourage all foreign startup founders looking to do business in China to learn Mandarin. While younger Chinese people are more fluent in English, when doing business with local people or speaking to government officials, it really helps if you can converse with them in Mandarin. Even if you do not speak perfect Mandarin, a little bit of understanding is enough to create an emotional bond that brings you closer to locals.

How you see the development of AI chatbots in the Thai market?

Thai people are very good at using technology in general. I believe the AI chatbot market in Thailand will follow China quickly and reach high levels of adoption soon. However, many chatbots in the market today are not very good. AI chatbots, when executed well, can provide a far superior user experience compared to traditional call center IVR (Interactive Voice Recording). I think the key to unlocking the potential of AI chatbots lies in having a good natural language processing (NLP) system.

How do you think AI chatbots will develop in Thailand’s financial market over the next three years?

The biggest opportunity is with retail banking. There is an opportunity to use AI chatbots for lead generation of loan products, personal loans, credit cards and SME loans. These are financial products that are relatively easy to understand for both customers and banks. However, for AI chatbots to take off in Thailand, the most important factor is to have a vast amount of data to train the Thai language NLP engine. Without this chatbots will not be able to understand what Thai customers are asking. 

With rapid developments in the field of NLP, this cutting-edge technology has the potential to transform the face of customer service, marketing, employee help desks, and other areas across different types of businesses. Once AI chatbots have evolved to the point of understanding and fluently interacting with users in their own native tongue, we may find ourselves living in an era where AI has become more than just a technology, but a colleague.

What makes Pand.AI stand out from other players in the market?

We are probably one of the first companies to adopt transfer learning which is an NLP deep learning technique. This means that our chatbots are more accurate compared with AI chatbots that use other methods that are not as cutting-edge. Moreover, when it comes to NLP, we are also focusing on Southeast Asia and we go out of our way to collect data relevant to the markets in this region. We are one of the few, if not the only, AI Chatbot provider that offers end-to-end services from strategizing and designing to developing, testing and even running the bot for our financial institution clients. 

Can you tell us about some interesting use cases for AI chatbots in the financial sector?

We see three interesting use cases. The first is marketing where AI chatbots help businesses generate leads, which is a key use for insurance companies, wealth management businesses and banks with loan products or retail banking. The second use case is customer service. Customers can call or text the chatbot for issues related to their bank account statement, balance or transfers, and their inquiries can be handled through the AI chatbot. The third use case is using it for an employee help desk for banks and insurance companies that have a large distributed workforce spread across a country. Employees can access internal information very quickly just by talking to a chatbot, which can relay information in a very timely and efficient manner. This is a growing area.

What is your advice for companies that are looking to connect with your system? 

I usually ask my clients two questions before we start a project: “What is your business objective?” and “Who is the target audience?” Having a clear business objective helps us work with the client to define their goals, so the features are developed to cater for their specific use case. Understanding the target audience also helps us to find the right way to use the chatbot to communicate with the target audience. For example, if they want to use a chatbot for marketing, there is no need for system integration, however, if you need a chatbot for customer service, then you need to consider whether your internal systems are ready to be integrated with the chatbot.

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