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Aetna Members Get Ann-swers
The insurer's virtual assistant engages more than 2 million chats, helping ferret out information on benefits, costs, and more
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Aetna provides healthcare, dental, pharmacy, behavioral health, group life and disability insurance, employee benefits, and healthcare management services to 36.5 million people—many of whom now enjoy expanded service from Ann, the company’s virtual online assistant.

As more consumers go online for health information, Ann is proving to be a welcome guide throughout the secure members’ section of Aetna’s corporate Web site. She logs about 20,000 chat sessions daily, and in June, she took part in her 2 millionth interaction.

When Aetna introduced Ann last year, her capabilities were limited. Initially, she helped with Web site registrations and log-ins, delivering forgotten passwords and user IDs to confounded site visitors.

In February, when Aetna expanded the content and services available to members on its site, the insurer also expanded Ann’s capabilities. “We gave the entire site a refresh, and as part of that, we added Ann across the whole site,” says Steve Schneider, Aetna’s head of member enrollments and communications.

Now, Ann is programmed to respond to thousands of inquiries and scenarios. Many of the questions she fields are related to the status of insurance claims, but her current capabilities are “leaps and bounds ahead of the initial deployment,” Schneider says. “Ann is now available across the entire Aetna secure member Web site to provide even more personalized assistance to our more than 12.5 million registered members.”

Site visitors can click on the Ann icon to open a chat window, where they can type questions. Ann is programmed to understand the intent of a question using built-in natural language understanding capabilities. If she fails to recognize a request, she can ask follow-up questions for clarification. Using text-to-speech and search technologies, Ann provides immediate spoken and written responses.

When Ann completely fails to recognize a request or cannot provide the answer, she can transfer the call to the IVR or a live agent, but that happens infrequently. Currently, 65 percent to 70 percent of her responses are of high quality, meaning the customer was able to get the information requested by going through Ann alone, but Schneider aims to raise that percentage to between 80 percent and 85 percent.

“Her main job is to get people through the site, and she does that pretty well,” he points out.

That wasn’t always the case. When Ann launched on the site, she was averaging 30 percent to 35 percent high-quality responses. “The improvement in quality is huge,” Schneider says. “But there’s always work to do to tune and maintain the system.”

What Ann says is controlled internally, and Aetna has a staff person to evaluate her responses and feed her more information, as needed, to fill in gaps.

Ann was developed by Next IT using its ActiveAgent human emulation software. Her voice—the same one used in the interactive voice response system on Aetna’s customer service line—appearance, persona, and even gender were all developed by Aetna after extensive research. “We had done a lot of research on the persona, on how people warm up to a particular voice,” Schneider says. “It was a real journey to come up with a face, a personality.”

In designing Ann, Aetna wanted to appeal to the largest number of people. The company opted for a persona that is “ethnically neutral,” according to Schneider, while also sounding “helpful, compassionate, and engaging.” 

Aetna’s customers would likely say the company found the right mix. More than half of Aetna’s Web site visitors engage with Ann, and the numbers are rising. 

Members receive the same responsive service from Ann that they would receive when calling customer service but without having to leave the Web site. As a result, calls to Aetna’s customer service technical help desk have been reduced by 10 percent since Ann’s debut. Early in the deployment, the number of calls to Aetna’s customer service technical help desk decreased by as much as 29 percent.

With results like that, Schneider would say Ann has certainly pulled her weight. In fact, he calls the deployment “one of the smoothest” of his career.

For that, he credits Next IT. “As we started to do our due diligence, Next IT quickly stood out,” he says. “They make the best human emulation possible.”

Moving forward, Schneider and others at Aetna are considering moving Ann to the mobile space, too. “It is at the forefront of our thinking right now,” Schneider says. “We definitely see ourselves being able to take the same technology and applying it to a mobile platform.”

That shouldn’t be a problem, since Next IT’s ActiveAgent software can be programmed to deliver results across multiple service channels, including the Web, contact center, and mobile devices.

A more immediate goal, however, is to add more personalization to Ann’s repertoire. But Aetna doesn’t want to change too much. “The technology behind her emulates the look and voice of a human,” Schneider says.


News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at lklie@infotoday.com.


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