Hello, Bennie: How Hershey is using AI to engage workers in benefits

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Hershey may be old school when it comes to chocolate, but when it comes to benefits technology, the company is on the cutting edge.

The chocolate manufacturer recently joined the ranks of companies using AI to communicate with employees about their benefits. Working with its internal Digital Innovation lab, Hershey rolled out “Bennie the Bot” for its latest open enrollment after making changes to its health plans and realizing it needed employees to get more engaged in their benefits selections.

Powered by AI, the Alexa device aims to answer employees’ benefits questions and help guide workers to the right resources. The bot also works via text message and web chat. It can answer some 300 benefits-related questions and is being programmed to answer more, David Keys, Hershey’s director of global benefits, said last week during the WorldatWork Total Rewards Conference in Orlando.

The company — along with partner Willis Towers Watson — last fall piloted the technology to about 1,800 employees in Hershey’s corporate office and one of its production facilities by putting eight devices throughout the two locations.

Hershey.Bloomberg
Chocolate bars are displayed for sale at the Hershey Co. Chocolate World store in Hershey, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Friday, July 13, 2018. Hershey Co. is scheduled to release earnings figures on July 26. Photographer: Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

Piloting the program — instead of rolling it out to all of Hershey’s 15,000-plus employees — was key so the company could “learn from its mistakes,” Keys said. The technology, for instance, doesn’t always recognize employee questions or comprehend the issues, he said.

“Not only do the responses have to be accurate and appropriate, they have to be consumable whether it’s verbalized by Bennie or somehow written by her, so it’s been intimidating,” said Nicole Melton, Willis Towers Watson’s senior director.

Getting employees on board with using the technology was another challenge. To help, Hershey developed a communications plan and created signage throughout the office encouraging workers to use the technology.

Additionally, they gave Bennie “a personality by allowing her to make a joke or answer personal questions so that people could have fun with the technology and get comfortable with it,” Melton said, adding that it was also important to remind employees that technology is already a part of their everyday life.

“You use Siri to get directions, you have an Alexa at home, so [people] already are familiar and comfortable with artificial intelligence,” Melton said. “Really we are just talking about taking things people use in their everyday lives and reapplying them for a novel purpose.”

Though not mainstream yet, virtual benefits assistants have been gaining momentum in the industry. Businessolver has Sofia, an AI-enabled personalized benefits assistant that can respond to workers’ benefits questions. Health and wellness platform HandsFree Health offers Wellbe, a digital voice assistant that workers can use to get information about their health benefits.

Hershey and Willis Towers Watson have worked out many of the kinks of the technology, and employees have become more comfortable using it. Hundreds of employees have used the chatbot since it launched in October. Over the next year, Hershey plans to expand the technology to other employees throughout the country. It also plans to expand the technology into other areas of human resources, including compensation.

“It’s really about making the information accessible and personal,” Keys said. “It’s been a great experience.”

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