How Quitline tapped this AI tool to re-engage lapsed quitters

With chronic relapse an ever-present challenge, tech-led proactive outreach can encourage another quit attempt

“Quitline is always looking for new and innovative ways to engage and communicate with people who want to quit smoking or vaping,” Quitline manager, Lindsay Whelan, told CMO about its decision to adopt a new artificial intelligence (AI) tool.  

Quitline’s mission is to reduce the health, financial and social inequities that come from smoking. With a desire to try a new approach and better understand how its clients respond to the technology, the group approached VicHeath, its major funder, about a partnership arrangement on a proof-of-concept project using AI. The idea was to address the needs of people when calling Quitline, specifically with customers who have not used the service for six months.  

When there are 21,000 people dying every year from smoking-related diseases, “the best time to explore anything that might help support people to quit is ASAP,” Whelan noted. The organisation had already started another project to identify other channels, such as SMS or push to URL, to communicate with clients.  

“We saw the AI technology as a great addition to this project so we could compare contact and completion rates of varying communication channels,” Whelan said.  

Re-engagement as the key driver  

Quitline particularly wanted to find ways to engage people whose hold on giving up smoking had faltered. Whelan said the percentage of people smoking who actually want to quit is 80 per cent. Sadly, smoking is a chronic relapsing addiction, so “it can take a number of attempts before an individual quits for good”.  

“We had a done a pilot quite a few years ago that showed previous users of the Quitline who had relapsed back to smoking were very open to making a new quit attempt, and we thought a proactive outreach would make it really easy for people who wanted to have another go at quitting,” he explained.  

In terms of Quitline’s messaging aspect, it isn’t about building brand. “It’s about exploring a way to re-engage people with a service to help them quit,” said Whelan.  

“We’re not marketing this service, or even communicating our adoption of the technology beyond our funders. The Quitline is not about the technology, it’s about the people who use the service and the counsellors who provide the service.”  

Quitline adopted the Curious Thing AI platform, which is designed to ask open-context ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions and understand customers’ answers. Whelan said it seemed the right approach for those who’d already had contact with the organisation.  

Quitline has found the AI tool a cost-effective way to re-engage customers who haven’t used the service for six months. It may also be used to support clients during non-operating hours.

“It also allows Quitline to gain invaluable insights into customers’ satisfaction with the service that we provide and what we could improve on,” Whelan said.  

Securing buy-in  

The AI adoption process was smooth, although there was some concern at the outset about how it would be received by clients.  

“We were initially a little nervous that clients may perceive the communication as a type of scam call,” Whelan said. To combat this, the group put measures in place such as an initial SMS notifying the client of the expected call from an AI assistant, and also clear advice to call the Quitline on 137 848 if they had any concerns.  

“It was clear that the communication was legitimately coming from Quitline and affording clients the opportunity to confirm this,” he said.  

This is born out in Curious Things’ research, which showed Australian consumers are increasingly open to businesses using voice AI assistants in their communications, as long as there is transparency ahead of time. The AI assistant used by Quitline resembles a human voice and there is the option to speak to a human if required.  

The top three conversations Australian consumers are comfortable having with an AI assistant are for appointment reminders and confirmations (72 per cent), special offers and discounts (43 per cent) and first-instance customer service help (33 per cent). The report also found half of respondents have interacted with AI assistants previously and can see the technology is improving.  

Whelan is full of praise for digital technologies that deliver both valuable data insights and value for money as a business tool.  

“Businesses should always be looking at more cost-effective ways to communicate with customers and ensure a larger audience base can be engaged through the channels they are most comfortable using,” he said.  

At this stage, the organisation is seeing better than expected completion rates and positive feedback from clients about using it. It has helped improve and streamline their service, including outside of working hours. Quitline now has detailed data insights from the platform to understand more about people’s experiences quitting smoking.  

“Our ultimate metric for success is whether this is a technology that can be used cost-effectively to re-engage people with the Quitline service,” Whelan said.  

The next step will be a full evaluation of the results and outcomes to better understand the effectiveness and potential to expand on how Quitline can use this type of technology to enhance its service offering. Whelan’s advice to others looking to undertake a similar initiative is to define the metrics and how any new tool will fit into existing customer pathways.  

“Be clear in what your expected outcomes are, and first and foremost, ensure you are clear on what your customer journey will look like when using this technology,” he concluded.    

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