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.

 

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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.

Continuous Learning: Propelling Forward in a Rapidly and Inevitably Changing World

Whether we realize it or not, advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, and the Internet of Things (IoT) have transformed the way we think about the world around us. From how we protect our schools to the way we navigate our streets to how we shop for groceries, such technology now lies at the heart of practically everything we do today.

Just as these technologies have changed the way we live, they have changed the way we work. Today’s rapid pace of innovation has transformed nearly every business task, process, and workflow imaginable—so much so that industry analysts estimate that up to 45% of activities that employees are paid to perform can now be automated.

This digital disruption—or what many are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution—without question redefines traditional roles and responsibilities. In fact, research shows that in five years, more than one third of skills that are considered important in today’s workforce will have changed. Even more, analysts estimate that 65% of children today will grow up to work in roles that don’t yet exist.

While we do still see employees that specialize in one skill or expertise, we’ve mostly moved away from the days of hiring an employee for just one job. As technology evolves, so too do the skills required to innovate and propel forward. Looking ahead, employees must have a propensity for continuous learning and adopting new skills to be able to recognize and respond to today’s speed of digital change.

Consider how technology has changed the marketing paradigm. As recently as 10 years ago, marketing platforms like Marketo and HubSpot had only just been founded, Facebook was still in its infancy, and the first iPhone had newly hit the market. As technologies like cloud, social, mobile and big data evolved, however, we suddenly began seeing new tools specifically designed to enhance digital media, social media marketing, and mobile marketing. As a result, companies began searching to fill roles for social media coordinators, digital campaign managers and integrated marketing planners—jobs that were unfathomable 15 to 20 years prior.

Fast forward to today and we’re seeing the emergence of new technology for marketing, such as augmented reality, geofencing, and emotion detection. The continual emergence of new technology perpetually creates skills gaps that must be filled by employees who are passionate, motivated, and invested in their own learning. These kinds of team members are committed to developing new skills and leveraging their strengths to outperform.

But not all employees can easily identify their strengths or develop new skills. This is likely why nearly half of employees today feel unengaged at work, with nearly 20% feeling “actively disengaged.” At the same time, companies are struggling to align employee strengths with organizational priorities. Employees may have certain strengths, but employers may find those skills don’t directly increase operational efficiency or performance. This is why nearly 80% of businesses are more worried about a talent shortage today than they were two years ago.

So, what’s the answer? Employees and employers must work together to identify what roles are currently filled, what skills are still needed, and who best exemplifies those skills. For employees, this means taking control of how they grow their careers and improving for the better. For employers, this means displaying an unwavering commitment to employee reinvestment by understanding key areas of interest to effectively fill skills gaps.

At Avaya, for example, we’re leading an employee enablement program under our Marketing 3.0 strategy. The initiative is designed to help strengthen our marketing organization by equipping employees with the right competencies that reflect our culture, strategy, expectations and market dynamics. By doing so, we can ensure we’re recruiting and managing talent in the most strategic way, putting the right people in the right jobs with the abilities to perform at maximum potential every day. By having each marketing function participate in a simple knowledge profile exercise, we can begin objectively determining development opportunities that best meet their needs and the needs of our business.

As technology continuously evolves, it’s crucial that employees have a propensity for continuous learning and that organizations foster an environment for this learning. In the words of former GE CEO Jack Welch, “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

We live in a world that is rapidly and inevitably changing. Employees should embrace this change to thrive, and must if they wish to propel business forward. As employers, we are responsible for strategically leveraging our resources to align employee strengths with organizational needs to succeed in this environment of constant change.