Artifical Intelligence

Service with a robot's smile

Meet Pepper, a humanoid robot with excellent manners. Source: Reuters

Imagine the last time a cashier was surly at the checkout counter, or you called up a company only to reach the least knowledgeable person on the payroll.

Yes, we are living in an era of crappy customer service. However one German startup is attempting to heed the call of disgruntled patrons everywhere with its artificial intelligence technology that learns through answering customer enquiries.

Cognigy is a digital assistant that helps AI bots pick up information from their conversations with real people, making responses more natural and human-like over time. The company benefits from voice-controlled digital assistants developed by US tech giants such as Siri, Alexa, Cortana or Google Assistant. These chatbots – programs capable of conducting conversations through text or audio – are given the ability to memorize customer preferences and product information.

“They’re channels – but we’re the brain behind it,” said Philipp Heltewig, Cognigy’s co-founder. “Alexa or Siri have their own systems to tell the user for example what the weather’s going to be like.”

This week the company received an investment of millions of euros from the well-known Silicon Valley investor Bjarne Hansen and the Düsseldorf-based consultancy Cassini, Handelsblatt has learned.

Cognigy itself is tight-lipped about its clients, but according to German media the firm has already developed a bot for consumer products giant Henkel to help customers find the right adhesive for particular tasks. Clients also reportedly include a German automaker, food and shipping company Dr. Oetker, and the Japanese firm SoftBank Robotics, which manufactures the “friendly robot” Pepper. In July, Cognigy posted a video of Pepper acting as a hotel concierge, with body language and intelligent speech created by the company’s software.


Artificial intelligence operates using systems called skills, which Cognigy provides to company chatbots. Skills are growing fast: The number offered by Amazon’s Alexa increased from 5,000 in the fourth quarter of 2016 to around 15,000 in the second quarter of 2017.

Cognigy works with companies to develop an information system that is hooked up to their corporate database. The customers talk to a chatbot which converts the message into text and sends it to the system developed by Cognigy, which then delves into the company’s database to answer it. That enables the chatbot to recognize customers, access product information and store the conversation for future interactions, Mr. Heltewig explained.

Experts agree that virtual assistants will transform communication between companies and their customers in the near future.

“There are already cases in which users can’t tell afterwards whether they were dealing with a human or an artificial chat partner,” said Bruno Gransche, a philosopher at the research center “Shaping the future” of the University of Siegen.

It can help foster brand loyalty, but there are potential risks. At present, when customers type in a search term for a product such as a yoga mat, they get a list of brands and all those brands at least have a chance to appear on the first page. But with voice-activated assistants, it’s going to be different.

“The aim must be to get customers to ask the question: ‘Google, show me Stranger Things on Netflix’ or ‘order me Adidas shoes on Zalando,’” said Jürgen Gietl, managing partner at consultancy Brandtrust. “If the brand isn’t in the customer’s mind and explicitly mentioned in the search with intelligent systems it won’t even be searched by Alexa or Google Home.”

Mr. Heltewig made the analogy of talking on an iPhone, not to it. “Customers have to understand one thing: It’s the brand that talks to the user,” he said. “In the end the assistant is just the channel.”


Barbara Woolsey and David Crossland edited this article for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Johannes Steger, an editor with Handelsblatt’s markets desk, contributed to this article. To contact the authors:

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