Digital Transformation Begins and Ends with the Customer

Being a consumer today can be frustrating. We are armed with uber powerful, smart devices that encourage multitasking from anywhere there is a connection. But the one obstacle continues to be the companies, small and large, we want to do business with via these devices. For the most part, these companies are not yet as smart as our smart, handheld devices.

It almost feels like being the first fax machine owner. It must have been a terrific feeling, but who could you talk to?

Is the gap between consumers’ smart devices and the digitization of the companies we want to do business with ever going shrink? Or will the consumer’s device always be smarter?

Smart devices have been around for a long time. In 2016 we would not consider ourselves early adopters. However, when comparing smart device adoption to corporation’s adoption of digital engagement technology, many corporation’s global infrastructures are still not as smart as our handheld devices. Case in point, last year Dimension Data reported that two out of five companies say that their current digital channel systems don’t meet current needs and less than half of those companies believe their digital infrastructure will deliver against future needs. With smart phone subscriptions expected to surpass basic phone subscriptions this year, companies are clearly struggling—and already predicting that they will continue to struggle—to keep up with their customers’ digital needs and expectations, starting with true mobility.

Think about that: the consumer experience is ahead of what most companies’ IT can deliver today and your smart device can do things for you that a global IT infrastructure, with all it scale and cost, can’t. It’s a very strange reality.

The reality for these companies is that investments in upgrading and modernizing to digitize an entire infrastructure takes budget, time, planning, and most important, commitment. Yet, not digitizing fast enough can be detrimental to the bottom line if your customers, partners, suppliers can’t interact with you as easily as they can your competitors.

Where to Start a Digital Transformation

After a company has determined that digitizing their infrastructure is an urgent matter and can no longer wait, the next challenge is planning where to start—all the while, your customers are continuing to get smarter devices. Every function, from human resources to procurement to sales to marketing, will benefit. But the truth is that the need to modernize the infrastructure originated with the customer. So doesn’t it make sense that the modernization starts where the customer interacts most—the customer experience center?

I willfully admit that may be an obvious answer coming from the CTO of Avaya. But as a customer myself, I want to do business with companies that prioritize me as a customer, and invest accordingly. I don’t want to read in the press how great their IT is if I cannot get my questions answered or my requests fulfilled and have a poor or lukewarm customer experience.

This goes back to the basics of business success. The basics that are often overlooked in the fast paced, digital world we live in: the customer is always right. The customer is the priority. The customer is why we’re in business. Treat customers as you would want to be treated. Customer. Customer. Customer. You can’t go wrong putting the customer first. User experience is king.

Unfortunately many companies who have, or are undertaking a digital transformation in order to survive, have forgotten that it’s the customer’s experience that is most important, not the company’s experience. Sure the company benefits from a digital transformation—the CAPEX and OPEX benefits are many. Employees will be more efficient, productivity will be up, performance will be easier to assess and modify. But the focus must still be about how the transition will affect the customer’s experience with the company from beginning to end.

Furthermore, the practice of contact center technology management has enabled teams to perfect how to evolve the services associated with the voice channel. Voice is often considered the most complex, technologically challenging channel—voice quality matters, and issues are immediately perceptible. As an industry, we have spent years studying and understanding how to improve upon the quality and delivery of voice to the customer experience. This same ongoing attention to detail, planning and understanding of quality needs to be applied to every additional touch point made available to the customer to connect with you. This is the humanization of going digital.

A Case for Retailers

Take traditional retailers for example. Any traditional retailer that started out as brick and mortar then needed to evolve to online sales in order to survive is compared to the king of online, digital retail: Amazon. One thing Amazon knows is that being a digital retailer is not just about putting products and services online and making them available for purchase. The real value is in defining the actual customer experience of the online shopper, and increasingly the online mobile shopper.

  • Is the online, mobile experience the same experience customers have when they visit a store or better?
  • Is the process for returning an online purchase the same experience as returning at the store or better?
  • If there is a problem with the product after it’s been purchased, is the online, voice, video, chat, omnichannel customer service experience the same as in store or better?
  • Is the customer punished for purchasing online by having to pay added shipping fees?

Notice that none of these questions ask: is the company’s experience the same or better?

This is why starting a digital transformation with the customer experience center, aka the contact center, is the logical starting point. The contact center will never be pure digital because customers expect some human interaction at some point. Add to that, that more often than not, employees—subject matter experts—outside the contact center are more actively involved with customer experience. As a result, every scenario or use case for human interaction needs to be considered and planned for during a digital transformation. Maybe the human interaction is not during the shopping process or the purchasing process. But having the ability—the option—to connect with another human being when questions or doubts arise before, during, or after the purchase is a key part of any customer journey. It builds loyalty and a long-term digital relationship with the customer.

Hidden Benefit of Customer-focused Starting Point

A hidden benefit of starting with the customer experience is that you already have people excited and ready to help you through the transition. I’m not talking about your vendor—obviously they will be there with a plan in place to partner with you through every step—if not, then you have the wrong vendor. I’m talking about your contact center agents.

Many companies when they start this transition have learned that their agents, as customers themselves and in their personal lives, are very comfortable working on multiple channels in addition to talking on the phone. In fact, the learning curve for the agents is often not as time intensive as originally anticipated. They’re excited to be able to engage with customers on any channel and create an integrated, omnichannel experience. More importantly, they understand the benefits of being able to see the customer’s entire experience history with the company—from in-store, to online, to social, to experience with products and services, etc.

That said, for social channels, more than half of companies will typically have a dedicated social response team in place to respond to customers on social channels. But having access to the customer’s history of interactions with the company across all channels, including social, is a relief to any customer interaction agent—contact center or in store. One of the top complaints by agents is not having a complete view into all of the customer’s interactions with the company. No one likes to feel stupid when trying to calm down and possibly save an unhappy customer. Having a complete view of the customer across all channels including an historical view should be a priority. Yet 79% of companies still don’t have this view today.

Many companies will say that the delay in providing their agents with a complete customer journey view is because they are still trying to leverage legacy investments through their digital transformation. Managing a digital transformation of the customer experience center by keeping legacy investments in place, while completely understandable, is not without risk. With more than 2.6 billion global users of smart phones, the risk in delaying a full digital transition is quickly losing business to competitors who are digitizing their entire infrastructure without looking back.

Once the decision to go digital is made and communicated, going digital starting with the customer experience is exciting. It means being able to be more efficient, which makes people more productive. The ability to have each customer’s historical record of interactions across all channels readily available means the agents are better informed about each customer, which allows the agents to do a better job with each customer. It also provides a single location for analytics to work its magic—but analytics is important enough on its own to be the focus of a separate blog at a later date. This is where and how customer loyalty and customer satisfaction start to go up.

It is clear to me that the level of excitement is directly correlated to the fact that your agents/employees are also customers themselves. They are smart device users. They know from experience how painful it is to try to interact with a company that is not yet digitally transformed.

And we’ve come full circle. The customer—more than 2.6 billion smart device users—is the real focus of a digital transition. On behalf of customers everywhere, please don’t forget that.

 

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Connected Health: The Digital Transformation of Care Innovation

All around the world, across the spectrum of disease, IT is changing our approach to chronic conditions and how we approach connected health. Text messages remind people living with HIV to take their medication and keep their medical appointments. Smartphone apps diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder by analyzing a user’s voice. Online forums enable breast cancer patients and survivors to trade information related to every stage of their care.

Collectively known as “connected health,” these recent, IT-driven innovations represent the intersection of digital technology and care. They’re transforming not only the way people manage their own health, but also the way they interact with their healthcare providers.

Unintended, but welcomed, consequences

By and large, connected health is an adaptation of technologies that were originally developed for other purposes. Mobile technology started out as a voice communication tool. Instant messaging was an outgrowth of online chat rooms. Social media became a means for making new friends.

Now these technologies have evolved and converged in a way that is overcoming formerly intractable barriers to care. By minding the agenda of day-to-day care, for instance, they give people the opportunity to stay in adherence with their treatments even where clinical visits are impractical due to cost, distance or availability. And by helping patients preserve their privacy, make sense of their conditions, and learn from others with similar experiences, health IT can lift the stifling veil of stigma from disease. 

The implications don’t stop with the individual. Connected health also helps people manage their own disease state so they don’t spread it to others. Across whole populations, it can allow interventions aimed at preventing chronic diseases, such as behavioral modifications that reduce the incidence of obesity.

Changing care innovation paradigms

In all these respects, connectivity is bringing to medicine a level of accountability and democratization that seemed unimaginable not so long ago. But it’s also dialing up the urgency of some unanswered questions. Among them:

  • What information is appropriate to gather? Not all information has value in a healthcare setting.
  • Will information remain proprietary? It’s unclear to what extent stakeholders are willing to advance the interests of the community ahead of the interests of a company.
  • What would a sharing paradigm look like? If companies were to share information, they would need a seamless, cohesive way to do it.
  • How will privacy and security be preserved? Artificial intelligence and machine learning are critical pieces of this equation.
  • How will healthcare use technologies to create new models of care? Today’s applications are largely geared toward improving quality and outcomes of existing care models.

There’s no one-size fits all solution to these questions. Neither is care innovation strictly a technology issue. Technologists must collaborate with clinicians, patients, and patient advocates to take care coordination and operational efficiency to the next level in helping people cope with long-term diseases. A new, technology-powered paradigm—one that transcends existing constraints of time and resources—can bring a welcome transformation in the ongoing management of care coordination and the patient experience.

Avaya Equinox, Now with Team Collaboration, Just Got More “Go-To”

 

I recently read that the Apple App Store now contains about 2.2 million apps. It’s an amazing number and a testament to the creativity of developers and the variety of our human interests and needs. But it made me wonder: how many apps can we really use on a regular basis & for what? Are they for fun? Are they informative? Do they increase team collaboration? If your smartphone is like mine, you’ve got a number of go-to apps that you use regularly, let’s say weekly, and probably a few you use daily or almost constantly. Then there are the Tier 2 apps, hiding in your folders that seldom see the light of day. It’s fun to delve into these folders every few months and rediscover the apps that I thought looked so interesting at the time but now languish for months on end.

What’s fun for personal apps however, can often become a nightmare in the work world. We all have someone in the office that has that need to be first with the latest hot app, to provide their take on what’s cool and what’s not and make everyone else feel a little short of the mark for not using it first. Of course most of these apps get frenzied activity for about 3 ½ days and then slip into oblivion. The issue for most of us is we simply have too much on the go to be constantly changing the way we work and coercing others to adopt our favorite app of the week.

What my work day really needs is a true go-to app. One that makes me more productive, more reachable, more on track and that lets me get to my tasks and meetings with a single touch. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know where I’m going with this: my go-to app is Avaya Equinox®. With its “mobile-first” Top of Mind screen, it provides me with at-a-glance visibility to meetings, instant messages and my call history giving me a single place to keep up to date and productive regardless of where my day may take me.

I’m happy to say that my go-to app just got more, well, “go-to”. The Avaya UC experience that I rely on every day is now being extended with the integration of a cloud-based team collaboration capability.  It gives me the full benefits of a team work environment that integrates voice, video, persistent team chat and messaging, along with file and screen sharing, all from within the Avaya Equinox experience.

Let me give you an example of these new Equinox team collaboration capabilities in action. I’m currently working with an external vendor on a major project. Our work will carry on for several quarters with new materials being created that need review, discussion, and likely several rounds of back and forth. To get the project kicked off and a vendor selected, we needed the full gamut of collaboration capabilities from simple voice calls to several all-day video conferences with participants joining from around the world – something easily managed with Avaya Equinox. 

The next step was to establish a core team and shift into a regular cadence of interaction. Adding the participants to the team collaboration space from both inside and outside Avaya was a snap and we were instantly able to communicate with one another – I use one to one instant messaging for small items or questions and chat when I want to involve the entire team for broader issues. Tasks get assigned within Avaya Equinox to keep our review cycles on track and we use the file sharing capability avoid clogging up our email. If I’m off line at some point, due to travel or other activity, a quick glance at Avaya Equinox gets me back up to speed with the team’s progress.

On a weekly basis, we usually need some face time, and Avaya Equinox provides complete meeting capabilities including audio / video conferencing with screen sharing so we all gain the advantages of personal interaction. No matter where we are or what we are doing, we can all collaborate on content in real-time – it’s more productive and prevents misunderstandings across a widely distributed team. 

In many ways our team collaboration space has become a virtual “war room”.  Information is clearly visible and easily shared, I can see who’s available at any time and formal and informal discussions can be initiated with ease.

There’s no shortage of apps available to anyone with a mobile device and the time to spend browsing around an app store. The real challenge is finding those few go-to apps that you’ll use every day. If you aren’t using Avaya Equinox yet, I’d encourage you to give it a try. I think it will make your short list of “go-to” apps and in a month or two, you might wonder how you got through your day without it!

Building SMS Text Bots is a Breeze

As a nerdy guy, I love movies about other nerdy guys. Give me movies like “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Theory of Everything,” or “Einstein and Eddington” (two nerdy scientists for the price of one), and I am in geek heaven. Recently, I was thrilled by “The Imitation Game”—the story of Alan Turing and his quest to break Germany’s WWII secret code. While I would never dare to compare myself to Mr. Turing, I like to think that we would have a few things in common. One area would be our shared interest in natural language processing and intelligent behavior.

Way back in 1950, Turing crystallized his research into these studies in what has become known as The Turing Test. Simply put, The Turing Test is a test of a machine’s ability to impersonate a human being. For a machine to pass The Turing Test, it must be able to participate in a conversation with a human being to the point where the human doesn’t realize that he or she is interacting with a machine. I can only imagine what Turing would think of today’s technology such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Home. Better yet, imagine Alan conversing with the robot, Sophia. Would he be excited or frightened? Personally, I am a little of both.

Real or Not

If you have been reading my articles on No Jitter and here on the Avaya blog, you know how enamored I am of the Breeze and Zang workflow designers. Although I have spent the bulk of my professional life writing software in programming languages such C++ and Java, I have fallen in love with how quickly I can use the Breeze/Zang tools to go from idea, to prototype, to a production-quality application. I like to say that if you can draw it on a whiteboard, you can “code” it with Breeze.

So, the day I decided to build a text bot, I knew exactly how I was going to do it. Starting with a list of things I wanted my text bot to do, I was soon drawing out message flows and decision points (if this, do that). Once I was happy I had captured all the salient points, I turned to my computer and began typing. Early on, I realized that there was no way on earth I could capture all the different text messages my application would need to process. For instance, how many different ways can you ask for the location of a store? “Where are you located?” “What is your address?” “What city are you in?” “How can I find you?” The variations are nearly endless.

To solve this problem, I turned to natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI). That, of course, led me to the 500-pound gorilla in the room—IBM Watson. With Watson, I can build “Conversations” that allow me to create intents, entities, and dialogs. Intents are used to classify a request. You can think of entities as modifiers to those intents. Dialogs are the words you want to “speak” after determining the intent.

For example, consider the phrase “Are you open on Sunday?” Here, the intent could be classified as “hours.” The entity is “Sunday.” A proper dialog could be, “We are open on Sunday from 12:00 to 5:00.” To keep things simple, I created three intents for my bot: Directions, Holidays, Hours. Those intents resulted in three dialogs. I left off entities for now.

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My next decision point had to do with maintaining a conversation over many text messages. For that I choose Avaya’s Contest Store, which allows me to temporarily store information about a text conversation. This information can then be accessed over the life of the chat.

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Now that I had an engine to process incoming text messages (Watson), and a method of maintaining a chat’s context (Contest Store), it was time to launch the Avaya Breeze Engagement Designer. I will admit that I still had a few logic problems to work through, but I would not be stretching the truth if I said that I had a rough draft of my text bot up and running in less than an hour. Working through those remaining issues consumed another couple of hours, but in a fraction of the time it would take me to write my application in Java, my bot was accepting text messages, building contexts, and texting back replies.

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I should also say that my bot is fully multi-user. It didn’t matter if one or one hundred people were all texting in at the same time. My bot kept track of each individual conversation and no one received a text meant for someone else.

 
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While my example bot is fairly simple in terms of what it can handle, the framework is extendable to just about any SMS conversations you might want to support. Future plans have me using Context Store to save the entire conversation between human and machine. Not only could this be useful for determining how accurately my bot responds to incoming requests, but it could also be used to help better serve customers. A recorded chat sessions could be presented to a human agent in the case where the user moved from text to a phone call.

Next, I would love to incorporate some of the other features that Watson provides. For example, by detecting the tone/sentiment of the conversation, my bot could sense if the human was becoming frustrated with the answers he or she was receiving from my bot. This would allow the bot to either escalate the chat to a live agent, or have an agent follow up afterwards to help soothe over what might have been an unpleasant experience – or both.

Mischief Managed

Human to human conversations aren’t going away anytime soon, but more and more machines are going to step in to handle the easy to moderately hard stuff. The point is not to trick people into thinking they are talking to a human being. The point is that machines can handle tedious jobs without coming across as machines.

While I highly doubt that anyone will ever make a movie about Andrew and his fabulous text bots, it isn’t all about fame and glory, right? This is exciting technology and the fact that I can use Breeze to create sophisticated bots by easily combining powerful, but disparate technologies, is red-carpet stuff.