Bots for breakfast: The chatbots powering the campaign against breast cancer

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

Every day, nine New Zealand women receive the news they have breast cancer – and one in nine will be diagnosed during their lifetimes. Breast Cancer Foundation NZ is on a mission to reduce breast cancer deaths to zero, through awareness, fundraising and support for research and people with cancer. So, when the charity itself needed help managing enquiries for its Pink Ribbon Breakfast campaign, IT consultancy Theta was quick to raise its hand. With the amazing FAQ Bot, it enabled BCFNZ to organise its armies of pink-ribboned volunteers at any time of day or night – so successfully, more chatbots are being enlisted to the cause.

Volunteers are the heart of any charity. Baking cakes, organising walks and parties, collecting donations and drumming up support, they make everything possible for the likes of Breast Cancer Foundation NZ (BCFNZ), running events throughout the year.

The charity’s Pink Ribbon Breakfasts are a cornerstone of its annual calendar, raising funds for breast cancer research, along with support and advocacy for patients. Each year thousands of New Zealanders host breakfasts (or lunches or afternoon teas), organise games, run raffles or perform other challenges to generate the donations which are the Foundation’s primary source of income.

But co-ordinating a nation of volunteers can be an extremely time-intensive job for BCFNZ staff. Despite a dedicated Pink Ribbon Breakfasts website, hundreds of questions would still come in to the small fundraising team, which all took time to answer. And as everyone knows, time also costs money, which could have been going towards BCFNZ’s core mission of zero deaths from breast cancer.

There were also concerns that if many calls were being missed, either through being outside office hours or stuck in a backlog, it created barriers to hosting and participating in events.

What they needed was a co-ordinator who could be available 24/7, field many calls at once and free up colleagues’ time for mission-critical work – and of course, do it all without using valuable resources. It simply wasn’t possible.

Or was it?

An elegant – and intelligent – solution

When board member Andrew Taylor learned about the problem, he saw an opportunity to do even more for the charity. As Head of Product at IT consulting company Theta, he realised what BCFNZ needed was a chatbot. And Theta’s own FAQ Bot was the perfect solution.

Unlike many chatbots, FAQ Bot has an extremely simple build process. No complicated “conversation trees” that many chatbots follow. And no need to design or script conversations in advance.

“We distil everything to its simplest elements – questions and answers. All customers need to do to get started is add the most common questions and answers,” explains Kate Doherty, FAQ Bot Product Specialist at Theta.

If someone asks a question that hasn’t been answered yet, the chatbot can look for an answer on the website, or send a query for a team member to follow up.

Kate and the Theta team held their own Q&A session with BCFNZ staff to demonstrate the technology and prove how easy it was to use. Because FAQ Bot is built on Microsoft Azure cloud, it could scale up or down to manage as many responses as needed – and Microsoft’s Cognitive Services technology powers its artificial intelligence.

That meant that if website visitors accidentally misspelled a word or used different words (or even languages!) to ask the same question, FAQ Bot could recognise their intent. If it didn’t know the answer to a question, it could even use Bing Web Search on the Pink Ribbon Breakfast website to suggest potential answers.

The whole system is constructed on the Microsoft Bot Framework, designed to make chatbots as easy to use, as helpful and as secure as possible. Built-in two-factor authentication means only authorised people can edit the chatbot’s responses in the back end. Azure’s data analytics capabilities also make it easy to see exactly which questions are being asked, how many, and when.

Theta offered to provide all this capability on a pro bono basis.

“Being on the board of the Foundation means I have seen first-hand the great work this organisation does and how hard they all work. Our CEO was happy to provide our product to help BCFNZ do even more,” Andrew says.

The Foundation team were delighted at the offer, immediately seeing its value. Within weeks, their designer had created a new custom avatar for the dedicated Pink Ribbon Breakfast Virtual Assistant, while other team members finetuned questions and answers to load into the platform’s knowledge base.

And the chatbot was born.

As Kate explains: “All it took to load onto the website was a couple of lines of code.”

Walking the talk – and talking the (Pink Ribbon) walk

More than 3,000 Kiwis hosted Pink Ribbon Breakfast events in May 2021. And the charity’s Virtual Assistant, powered by the FAQ Bot product, was there to answer all their questions about hosting and fundraising.

BCFNZ Fundraising and Campaign Manager, Nicky Sinclair-Perkins, explains: “Our chatbot has already saved us so much time answering our supporters’ questions. This means they have the information they need to participate in our activities, at the time they need it – they’re not stuck waiting for us to get through the backlog of enquiries.”

Analytics showed the Virtual Assistant was able to answer 80% of queries directly, with the top five questions being asked 831 times during the Pink Ribbon Breakfast campaign period. And when supporters asked new questions, the team was easily able to add answers to the chatbot, ready for next time.

“Once the FAQ Bot was live on our site it was great to be able to monitor the conversations and easily change the knowledge base, based on what was being frequently asked. This was a very easy, simple process!” says Elise Simons, Marketing and Events Co-ordinator at BCFNZ.

The team could also drill down into the detail of a conversation and view the entire exchange in those cases when follow up was required, to provide useful context.

In fact, the Virtual Assistant was so useful that similar chatbots were quickly rolled out for two further fundraising campaigns – the Pink Ribbon Walk and annual street appeal, ready to answer any questions their volunteers, supporters and participants had. When Covid-19 led to a decision to cancel Pink Ribbon Walks and switch to a new virtual format, BCFNZ could quickly and easily make updates to their chatbot to provide updated information.

“It answered many questions regarding refunds on tickets and donations, and what the virtual walk would entail. The chatbot has been vital in communicating info and reassuring people,” Elise says.
The project even won a Cloud for Good Award at the Microsoft Partner Awards 2021, recognising the enormous impact it’s had on supporting a great cause.

As Microsoft New Zealand Partner Director, Matt Bostwick, acknowledged: “Theta has a long and proud history of delivering incredible work for its customers, receiving numerous award nominations over the years for its unflagging standards and excellence. This year, it was a finalist in three of our awards categories, but we’re particularly proud of how Theta has supported a charity that touches the lives of so many of us. Almost every New Zealander knows, or will know, someone affected by breast cancer, and we’re delighted that Theta has used Microsoft solutions to support highly successful fundraising events for Breast Cancer Foundation NZ.”

“We’re building chat support into all our campaigns from now on”

Ongoing support is an important benefit too. Even as the BCFNZ team prepare for new events, the FAQ Bot is always available to tidy up loose ends from previous campaigns.

“We still get enquiries many months after the May campaign. People realise they have forgotten to bank donations, or they want to hold an event outside of the campaign period. A great thing about our FAQ Bot is that, unlike us, it’s always available. That means people can ask questions whenever they think of them, and we can easily capture and respond to that interest. If someone wants to hold a breakfast but it’s not the right time, we can set them up as a community fundraiser instead. Chat makes it easy to engage and support our supporters – whatever their schedule,” says Nicky.

Having that extra “team member” available at all times means valuable fundraising leads and enquiries aren’t being lost. BCFNZ can also now leverage the “voice of the customer” data – the questions people ask of the chatbot, in their own words – to plan and improve other communications.

As Nicky summarises: “Removing the barriers to make it easy for people to get involved is crucial. When it comes to fundraising, the less friction in the process, the better. And because we have more time, we can focus on what’s important – working harder and smarter towards zero deaths from breast cancer. We’re building chat support into all our campaigns from now on. The benefit is really clear.”

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