How to Transform the Customer Experience with Chatbots

2016 is shaping up to be the year of the Chatbot. From Jarvis, Mark Zuckerberg’s Iron Man-inspired assistant, to Microsoft’s rather unfortunate Tay experience, chatbots have been making the news this year—not least in how they are playing an ever bigger role in customer service.

While there has been a lot of speculation about how chatbots are going to replace human agents in contact centers, we are still a long way from that scenario. Rather, chatbots are freeing up humans and, somewhat counterintuitively, helping to deliver a more personalized experience. Automation in customer experience is all about making things faster, easier and more streamlined for customers so we don’t have to repeat ourselves multiple times, and explain our problems to different agents every time we contact an organization.

Pretty much any organization today has some sort of customer experience process in place, and that process has evolved along with technology. From the traditional call center, with rows of agents handling multiple calls, we have moved on to the contact center and multichannel communications, which encompass traditional and digital channels.

As organizations embark on digital transformation initiatives an essential part of the journey is delivering a multichannel experience—allowing for consistent customer experiences from multiple touch points, and enabling customers to make contact via the mediums of their choice. Customers today expect to receive an always-on personal digital experience. Meeting that expectation is no longer optional.

Better Collaboration

The problem that customer experience professionals face is that there are just so many experiences—more than we poor humans can keep up with. Chatbots are increasingly being used to take away menial tasks from agents, allowing agents to focus on the human element that is so crucial to driving customer satisfaction and enabling them to provide better and warmer collaboration with their customers. This will not only increase CSAT scores and boost customer loyalty, it can help improve motivation levels for the agents themselves, which will help reduce churn and eliminate the need to keep training new staff.

This will also allow organizations to essentially retain and boost service levels with fewer agents and reduced costs on the overall contact center infrastructure. Today, a contact center’s costs are predominantly for agents and real estate. Technology and process design and operations come in a late second from a cost point of view. With a multichannel contact center, the biggest challenge in delivering an awesome customer experience is gluing the pieces together: linking the various knowledge and functional teams to customer service, delivering new capabilities and features that eventually enable us as customers to call one time and see our problems solved. This first-touch resolution wasn’t possible before and vendors that put together tools and technologies to achieve that still lag behind.

And at heart, businesses are still providing customer service the same way: you initiate communication with the contact center, and they respond, albeit now that can be done via phone, e-mail, text or social media. And, let’s face it, people still don’t like contacting customer service. We are still really reluctant to make that initial contact—we don’t get the immersive experience we seek as consumers.

Brave New Digital World

The application of artificial intelligence to deliver on the combined objectives of first-touch resolution and immersive experiences is almost complete. Avaya is leading this transformation with an upcoming evolution in its technology, where chatbots are only the beginning of this brave new digital world. Our R&D and customer experience folks are perfecting a digital persona that is intelligent enough to learn from experiences, predict your preferences and resolve your problems – almost before you know you have them.

Ultimately though, whatever happens with the technology, one element is always going to remain human: the customer. We are all unique individuals, even if we tend to have similar issues and problems. The best service—the kind that boosts CSAT scores, inspires word of mouth reporting, and ensures loyal, happy customers—will therefore likely require a unique, human response. Chatbots and automation will play a key role in delivering that service by freeing up agents’ valuable time to provide it.

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Let’s Talk about the Modern Business Ecosystem: Why We Need to Open Up

Forty years ago, technology vendors had it all figured out. They would differentiate themselves by continually bringing new proprietary solutions to market—a recipe for success in an age of a closed hardware dependent architecture. By exclusively building their own product portfolio under patent or trade-secret protection, companies could easily secure long-term revenue. This proprietary race fueled business for decades, and it still does today. Consider proprietary software solutions from Apple, which have licensing terms that limit usage to only Apple hardware (for example, Mac OS X).

A proprietary model offers several perks, yet not enough in today’s era of digital transformation. Intelligent, connected technologies like IoT, AI and machine learning have ushered enterprises into a new era of any-to-any communication, one filled with seemingly limitless collaboration and CX possibilities. As companies worked to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation, they came to realize that proprietary solutions stifled their efforts to grow and evolve, and they could no longer rely on one or multiple vendor or their life cycle timelines to develop the next-gen CX and/or vertical-specific services they needed.

A Big Change in a Small Amount of Time

Over the course of just a few short years, we saw a massive paradigm shift in which companies began seeking niche vendors to drive revenue and competitiveness. They turned to cloud-based businesses that were born in the digital era. They looked to startups that specialized in vertical-specific strategies. It wasn’t long before the average organization had created a unique, multi-vendor ecosystem in which various solutions were integrated to meet specific customer and vertical requirements. Case in point: the average business now leverages up to six different cloud solutions.

As every market filled with competing vendors, it seemed the most influential players were those that offered engaged, open ecosystems. These vendors allowed customers to freely modify original source code for virtually any purpose, versus retaining copyrights. With so many companies operating complex, multi-vendor ecosystems, open architecture that enabled collaborative app development became ideal for driving desired customer outcomes. We even see customers now acquire their own technology to accelerate the digitization of their business. You can’t do that in a proprietary and rigid architecture.

Multi-vendor Ecosystem vs. Open Ecosystem

This rise of niche vendors isn’t expected to slow down anytime soon. In fact, Gartner predicts that startups will overtake leaders like Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft in markets like AI by 2019. If not properly supported, however, a multi-vendor environment can create infinitely more harm than good.

For starters, companies must secure their multi-vendor ecosystems. Research shows that the average organization’s network is accessed by 89 different vendors and partners per week, a number that should send chills down your spine from a security perspective. If that’s not shocking enough, one-third of companies admit they don’t know how many vendors access their systems at any given time. Despite this, over 70% believe their number of third-party vendors will increase by 2018.

In addition to this is the inherent challenge of seamlessly leveraging multiple different vendor solutions. You see, if these solutions aren’t properly integrated, they don’t represent a truly open ecosystem. To build targeted solutions that continually improve outcomes, companies must be able to seamlessly collect, track, share and use the data that exists across all vendor platforms and knowledge bases. None of these systems can be siloed from one another.

Consider the benefits of an open ecosystem within the transportation industry. Picture this scenario: administrators have taken notice that the 7:45 a.m. train fills up every morning to the point where passengers must wait for the next train. In a truly open ecosystem, management can leverage data collected across various integrated solutions (i.e., ticketing platforms, video surveillance systems, Wi-Fi/carrier grade services, mobile app systems, movement sensors, etc.) to identify the root cause of the issue and begin driving better customer outcomes. Data from the ticketing platform, for instance, may show that tickets purchased for 7:45 a.m. exceed the train’s maximum capacity by 15%.

At this point, management can leverage data in various ways to determine the best solution to the problem. For example, they may want to build a sophisticated level of automation to dynamically change the train schedule, monitoring it for continual improvement. They may choose to send automated SMS messages informing customers of anticipated congestion times and suggested alternatives for work travel while displaying updated information in real time on their digital signage systems. They could incentivize daily commuters by offering 15% off monthly passes if used for an earlier or later train time. Regardless of how the experience is enhanced, the entire technology ecosystem should be actively working together to make it happen. As I say, dealing with congestions on highways by constantly rebuilding the roads with more lanes is not exactly the smartest approach. Maximizing and optimizing its usage through smart traffic distribution and management can be proven to be way more effective while meeting the citizen’s experience.

The Future of the Customer Experience Relies on Open, Extensible Architecture

The more open a business ecosystem, the more seamlessly data can be leveraged to drive desired customer and citizen outcomes. The ability to track, collect and share data across dispersed systems is what allows companies to create custom solutions that target exact customer requirements. This open, extensible nature is vital within a next-generation platform.

Differentiating oneself is no longer as simple as rolling out a new proprietary solution. To drive desired outcomes and deliver true value, organizations must be open, agile, integrated and future proof. As the world continues transitioning to an open ecosystem, we become that much closer to eliminating a longstanding dependency on legacy hardware and hierarchal architecture.

So far, I’ve discussed four of five critical components that organizations must start looking at within a next-generation platform: next-gen IT, IoT, AI and open ecosystem. Up next, we’ll take a deep dive into the final and most significant of these: the customer (or citizens) experience. Stay tuned.

A Secret Weapon: See the Full Potential of AI for Your Next-Gen CX

If I were to ask how often you engage with a form of artificial intelligence (AI), what would you say? Now, what if I told you that not only do you engage with AI more than you think, but you’ll rely on it more than traditional phone service five years from now? Would you agree, or think I’m plain crazy?

Before you form an opinion, consider the reality in which we live. It’s commonplace to engage with AI-enabled virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana. In fact, if you own an iPhone, you’re likely part of the 98% majority who has at least tried Siri. By 2020, more than a quarter billion consumers will be operating connected vehicles that can autonomously drive, park and change lanes. This year, it’s expected that 50 AI-enabled devices (like Amazon Echo) will be shipped per minute.

Overall, top analyst firms like Gartner and Forrester expect AI, driven by intelligent analytics, to reshape the CX more than any other technology over the next five years. With the rapid pace of innovation, this trajectory could very well mean the near-extinction of traditional phones. Consider that assisted/automated service is already practically head-to-head with traditional phones in terms of usage. Phone contacts dropped 17% from 2015 to 2017—now representing about 55% of all interactions—while assisted/automated service has grown to now represent 45%.

The Proliferation of AI: From Fantasy to Hard Reality

Suddenly, a high level of AI dependence doesn’t seem so crazy anymore. And it shouldn’t. After all, the technology is now driving most of our daily experiences. For example, we’re now seeing AI-based cognitive healthcare that can identify patient care gaps and automate personalized interventions. Companies are launching chat bots built on conversational AI to intuitively communicate with consumers across multiple platforms. Educators are working to unify traditionally siloed data to build school-specific predictive models. The world is embracing AI, and this means organizations across every sector must have the right technology foundation to drive desired customer and citizen outcomes.

But this is easier said than done. The rise of technologies like the IoT and AI have made architecture implemented even 15 years ago no longer able to deliver the kind of dynamic service experience customers now demand. Companies are finding that systems meant to last decades can’t sufficiently handle the pressures of a next-gen, digital business ecosystem. AI has opened the door to vast new CX capabilities, yet most companies struggle to realize the technology’s full potential because of a dependency on legacy hardware and hierarchical architecture.

This is exactly why the concept of a next-generation platform has skyrocketed in recent years. The technology is open, agile and future-proof enough for companies to radically shift to meet the customer needs of today and the future, whatever they may be. In today’s world of limitless possibilities, organizations need a platform that boasts a seemingly endless scope of capabilities.

What Businesses Need in a Next-Gen Platform to Make AI Work for Them

Not just any next-gen platform will do for those looking to capitalize on AI, however. As I mentioned in a previous blog, the concept of a next-generation platform isn’t as simple as it sounds, and there are many variations among industry analysts. Having said this, here are three capabilities that we at Avaya believe a next-generation platform must have in order for companies to realize the full benefits of AI in the smart digital world:

  1. Silo elimination: Not minimization—elimination. Unfortunately, many companies will fail to drive the customer or citizen outcomes that matter most because they’re siloing AI. In doing so, they’re effectively limiting the CX capabilities that the technology can drive. While these companies recognize and prioritize AI, they have yet to look beyond their developments as part of something greater. At Avaya, we believe a next-generation platform must easily integrate AI into any existing business ecosystem to seamlessly drive the digital, end-to-end customer journey. As I’ve said time and again, the greatest barrier to CX success is the continuation of silos. This is especially true considering the ability today to connect customer journeys through analytics.
  2. Intelligent automation: As businesses digitize, they will undoubtedly need a certain level of automation to deploy and manage countless connected services end-to-end. This level of automation must be able to accelerate and customize what consumers and/or citizens will experience. For example, consider an AI-supported school where students can receive automated SMS messages personalized to their daily schedules (i.e., their mode of transportation or extracurricular activities). Or, consider that quarter billion figure mentioned earlier in terms of connected cars. Top manufacturers like Tesla, BMW and Audi are investing in self-driving cars where automated M2M communication outweighs human-to-human communication. Even if a mechanical issue arises, the vehicle will automate a phone call or SMS to ask the driver for more information to strengthen its knowledge base for future incidents.
  3. Multi-database analytics: If I could stress the importance of any one capability, it would be this. Just as companies must integrate AI into their existing ecosystems, they must also break traditional database silos. The power of an AI-enabled CX is ultimately found in the free flow of multi-database analytics. Let’s say you’re traveling to Argentina, for example. It shouldn’t be difficult for a tourism company to register when you clear customs as a guest entering the country, allowing the company to begin delivering a contextualized, end-to-end experience based on knowledge acquired from multiple different databases. For instance, they may want to send you an automated SMS listing the top five tango shows in your local region because they flagged a tweet you had posted two weeks earlier mentioning your interest in tango. They can then offer you a virtual assistant who can help you further, should you have any questions.

This level of engagement is not only possible, but is expected to become the norm in just a few short years. The question is: how can we make this easier for businesses to achieve? This all starts with transitioning to a software-based model that is completely detached from hardware dependency. Software automated architecture, which leverages the full power of the cloud, enables companies to begin easily and reliably scaling with more elasticity to drive these kinds of AI-enabled outcomes.

Up next I’ll be discussing the importance of your next-generation platform being built on an open ecosystem. Stay tuned.

What’s Next? Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Customer Experience

Last month Google hosted its annual Google I/O conference and their new CEO Sundar Pichai delighted an audience of tech enthusiasts when he said, “We have this vision of a shift from mobile-first to an AI-first world over many years.” At Avaya, we couldn’t agree more.

Don’t get me wrong: mobile-first has been and will continue to be a requirement for everything we do. Smart mobile phones are where business and work get done today. We are not dismissing or abandoning the value of developing with mobile-first as a top business priority. But from an innovation, what’s-next perspective, we agree with Google: we need to be innovating for a world that is quickly embracing AI-first.

Artificial Intelligence is becoming the new consumer expectation and with it comes virtual reality, chat bots and augmented reality. Technology that was initially considered for entertainment, science and gaming, has crossed over into our everyday reality. We have the smart phone user to thank for that. Look at the Pokémon GO cultural phenomenon. Nintendo with Pokémon modernized the popular children’s game that originally used paper playing cards into an AI-based augmented reality game played on the smart phone. Just launched in the United States in July, it already has daily usage numbers surpassing Twitter’s. In my adopted hometown of San Francisco this week, a Pokémon GO crawl is inspiring more than 3,600 people of all ages to come together to search for Pokémon. Talk about an overnight sensation that is driving cultural and social change.

The big question for us: How do we harness all that consumer enthusiasm for AI into business communications?

Like Pokémon Go that takes advantage of the most common communications tool today—the smart phone—we have to do the same; user experience is key. Avaya’s Emerging Products & Technology group in conjunction with their Customer Experience Centre in Galway, Ireland—the company’s global R&D facility that is accelerating future technologies in next-generation customer experience applications—is innovating for AI in business communications.

The team is currently working on an advanced chat bot that delivers an AI experience in the contact center by enabling machine learning to model customer language and dialog interactions. The result is intelligent conversations with customers and the ability for the chat bot to answer their queries or resolve customer service issues on any channel they choose. It takes SMS and web chat conversations, as well as integrates with social media platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram, Kik or WeChat and can be adapted for interaction in any language. The chat bot provides automation and analysis of customer interactions delivering efficient self service and agent-based customer care in real time.

With this technology, routine tasks for live agents are handled by the chat bot, making the business much more efficient. Over time, as the machine learning continues to collect data and intel from the system, the chat bot in turn “learns” more about the business and can become more versatile. If the chat bot is ever challenged, a live agent can quickly and easily take over. The advanced technology capabilities that AI enables allow us to augment existing solutions such as Avaya Oceana™, and ultimately create a more highly innovative customer experience.

While we always innovate for the future with our finger on the pulse of today’s evolving customer experiences, our customers who have been given a preview of what we’re doing with AI have validated that we are on track:

  • “This is a great way to bring self-service efficiencies to several of my customer touch points.”
  • “Automation/AI backed by context routing to agents…when needed, will help drive more efficiencies in our business.”
  • “Attaching automation bots to messaging platforms is important to us. It is where our customers are reaching out today and in the future.”
  • “The cloud makes sense as the way to deliver this social/messaging bot/AI technology.”

Pedro Domingos, a machine learning specialist and the author of “The Master Algorithm,” recently told the New York Times, “Whoever wins this race will dominate the next stage of the information age.” While we will look to technology giants such as Google to be a strong contender for winning the great AI race, we are confident that in our industry—business communications—we are well-positioned to not only lead the adoption of AI but win big.