Last week Microsoft announced the acquisition of Nuance for an estimated USD 19.7 billion. This is Microsoft’s second largest acquisition ever, after they acquired LinkedIn in 2016. Nuance is an established name in the Healthcare industry and is said to have a presence in 10,000 healthcare organisations globally. Apart from Healthcare, Nuance has strong capabilities in Conversational AI and speech solutions to support other industries. This acquisition is in line with Microsoft’s go-to-market roadmap and strategies.
Microsoft’s Healthcare Focus
Microsoft announced their Healthcare Cloud last year and this acquisition will bolster their Healthcare offerings and market presence. Nuance’s product portfolio includes clinical speech recognition SaaS offerings – Dragon Ambient eXperience, Dragon Medical One and PowerScribe One for radiology reporting – on Microsoft Azure. The acquisition builds on already existing integrations and partnerships that were in place over the years.
“Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare offers its solution capabilities to healthcare providers using a ‘modular’ approach. Given how diverse healthcare providers are in their technology maturity and appetite for change, the more diverse the ‘modules’, the greater the opportunities for Microsoft. This partnership with Nuance also brings to the table established relationships with EHR vendors, which will be useful for Microsoft globally.
The Healthcare industry continues to struggle as the world negotiates the challenges of mass vaccination. But on the upside, the ongoing Healthcare crisis has given remote care a much-needed shot in the arm. Clinicians today will be more open to documentation and transcription services for process automation and compliance. The acquisition of Nuance’s Healthcare capabilities will definitely boost Microsoft’s market presence in provider organisations.
However, Healthcare is not the only industry that Microsoft and Nuance are focused on. The Microsoft Cloud for Retail that was launched earlier this year aims to offer integrated and intelligent capabilities to retailers and brands to improve their end-to-end customer journey. Nuance has omnichannel customer engagement solutions that can be leveraged in Retail and other industries. As Microsoft continues to verticalise their offerings, they will consider more acquisitions that will complement their value proposition.“
Microsoft’s Focus on Conversational AI
Microsoft already has several speech recognition offerings, speech to text services, and chatbots; and they continue to invest in the Conversational AI space. They have created an open-source template for creating virtual assistants to help Bot Framework developers. In February, Microsoft announced their industry specific cloud offerings for Financial services, Manufacturing, and Non-Profit, and also introduced a series of AI and natural language features in Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Office Lens and Microsoft Office mobile to deliver interactive, voice forward assistive experiences.
“There is no slowing down in this space and the acquisition clearly demonstrates the vision that Microsoft is building with Nuance – a vendor that has made speech recognition, text to speech, conversational AI the foundation of the company. This is a brilliant move by Microsoft in the Conversational AI space and a win-win for both companies.
This move could also mark further inroads for Microsoft into the contact centre space. With Teams now being integrated into contact centre technologies, working with large customers using speech and conversational AI, Dynamics 365 could herald the start of more acquisitions for Microsoft to bolster a wider customer engagement vision.
The Conversational AI war is heating up and various other cloud vendors such as Google and AWS are starting to get aggressive and have made investments in recent years to enhance their Conversational AIcapabilities. Google Dialogflow has been seeing rapid uptake and they now have deep partnerships with Genesys, Avaya, Cisco and other contact centre players. Microsoft coming into the game and acquiring a company with years of history and IP in the speech space, demonstrates how the cloud battle and the war between Google, Microsoft and AWS is heating up in the Conversational AI. All of a sudden you have Microsoft as a powerhouse in this game.”
Intellibot is the latest in a string of purchases by ServiceNow that reveals their intention to embed AI and machine learning into offerings. In 2020, they acquired Loom Systems, Passage AI (both January), Sweagle (June), and Element AI (November) in addition to Attivio in 2019. These acquisitions were integrated into the latest version of their Now Platform, code-named Quebec, which was launched earlier this month. As a result, Predictive AIOps and AI Search were newly added to the platform while the low-code tools were expanded upon and became Creator Workflows. This means ServiceNow now offers four primary solutions – IT Workflows, Employee Workflows, Customer Workflows, and Creator Workflows – demonstrating the importance they are placing on low-code and RPA.
ServiceNow was quick to remind the market that although they will be able to offer RPA functionality natively once Intellibot is integrated into their platform, they are still willing to work with competitors. They specifically highlighted that they would continue partnering with UiPath, Automation Anywhere, and Blue Prism, suggesting they plan to use RPA as a complementary technology to their current offerings rather than going head-to-head with the Big Three. Only a month ago, UiPath announced deeper integration with ServiceNow, by expanding automation capabilities for Test Management 2.0 and Agile Development projects.
Expansion in India
The acquisition of Intellibot, based in Hyderabad, is part of ServiceNow’s expansion strategy in India – one of their fastest growing markets. The country is already home to their largest R&D centre outside of the US and they intend to launch a couple of data centres there by March 2022. The company plans to double their local staff levels by 2024, having already tripled the number of employees there in the last two years. The expansion in India means they can increasingly offer services from there to global customers.
“Buyers will find that many of the automation capabilities that they currently purchase separately will increasingly be integrated in their enterprise applications. This will resolve integration challenges and will be more cost-effective.”
The cloud hyperscalers are also likely to play a growing role in the RPA market over the next year. Microsoft and IBM have already entered the market, coming from the angle of office productivity and business process management (BPM), respectively. Google announced just last week that they will work closely with Automation Anywhere to integrate RPA into their cloud offerings, such as Apigee, AppSheet, and AI Platform. More interestingly, they plan to co-develop new solutions, which might for now satisfy Google’s appetite for RPA rather than requiring an acquisition.
Here are some of the trends to watch for RPA, AI and Automation in 2021. Signup for Free to download Ecosystm’s Top 5 AI & Automation Trends Report.
There is a lot of hope on AI and automation to create intellectual wealth, efficiency, and support for some level of process stability. After all, can’t we just ask Siri or Alexa and get answers so we can make a decision and carry on?
Automation has been touted as the wonder formula for workplace process optimisation. In reality it’s not the quick fix that many business leaders desire. But we keep raising the bar on expectations from automation. Investments in voice technologies, intelligent assistants, augmented reality and touchscreens are changing customer experience (Figure 1). Chatbots are ubiquitous, and everything has the potential to be personalised. But will they solve our problems?
100 percent automation is not effective
Let’s first consider using automation to replace face-to-face interactions. There was a time when people were raving about the check-in experience at some of the hotels in Japan where robots and automated systems would take care of the check-in, in-stay and check-out processes. Sounds simple and good? Till 2019, if you checked into the Henn-na Hotel in Japan, you would be served and taken care of by 243 robots. It was viewed by many as a template for what a fully automated hotel could look like in the future.
The hotel had an in-room voice assistant called Churi. It could cope with basic commands, such as turning the lights on and off, but it was found to be deficient when guests started asking questions about places to visit or other more sophisticated queries. It was not surprising that the hotel decided to retire their robots. In the end it created more work for the hotel staff on-site.
People love the personal touch when they are in a hotel; and talking to someone at the front desk, requesting assistance from hotel staff, or even just a short chat over breakfast are some of the small nuances of why the emotional connection matters. Many quarantine hotels today use robots for food delivery, but the hotel staff is still widely available for questions. That automation is good, but you need the human intervention. So, getting the balance right is key.
Empathy plays a big role in delivering great Customer Experience
Similarly, there was a time when many industry observers and technology providers said that a contact centre will be fully automated, reducing the number of agents. While technologies such as Conversational AI have come along where you can now automate common or repetitive questions and with higher accuracy levels, the human agent still plays a critical role in answering the more complex queries. When the customer has a complicated question or request, then they will WANT to speak to an agent.
When it reaches a point where the conversation with the chatbot starts getting complicated and the customers need more help there should be the option – within the app, website or any other channel – to escalate the call seamlessly to a human agent. Sometimes, a chat is where the good experience happens – the emotional side of the conversation, the laughter, the detailed explanation. This human touch cannot be replaced by machines. Disgruntled customers are happier when an agent shows empathy. Front line staff and human agents act as the face of a company’s brand. Complete automation will not allow the individual to understand the culture of the company. These can be attained through conversations.
Humans as supervisors for AI – The New Workplace
Empathy, intuitiveness, and creativity are all human elements in the intelligence equation. Workers in the future will need to make their niche in a fluid and unpredictable environment; and translating data into action in a non-replicable way is one of the values of human input. The essence of engineering is the capacity to design around human limitations. This requires an understanding of how humans behave and what they want. We call that empathy. It is the difference between the engineer who designs a product, and the engineer who delivers a solution. We don’t teach our computer scientists and engineering students a formula for empathy. But we do try to teach them respect for both the people and the process.
For efficiency, we turn to automation of processes, such as RPA. This is designed to try to eradicate human error and assist us in doing our job better, faster and at a lower cost by automating routine processes. If we design it right, humans take the role of monitoring or supervisory controlling, rather than active participation.
At present, AI is not seen as a replacement for our ingenuity and knowledge, but as a support tool. The value in AI is in understanding and translating human preferences. Humans-in-the-loop AI system building puts humans in the decision loop. They also shift pressure away from building “perfect” algorithms. Having humans involved in the ethical norms of the decision allows the backstop of overly orchestrated algorithms.
That being said, the astute use of AI can deepen insights into what truly makes us human and can humanise experiences by setting a better tone and a more trusted engagement. Using things like sentiment analysis can de-escalate customer service encounters to regain customer loyalty.
The next transformational activity for renovating work is to advance interactions with customers by interpreting what they are asking for and humanising the experience of acquiring it which may include actually dealing with a human contact centre agent – decisions that are supported at the edge by automation, but at the core by a human being.
Ecosystm research shows that process automation will be a key priority for technology investments in 2021 (Figure 2).
With AI and automation, a priority in 2021, it will be important to keep these considerations in mind:
Making empathy and the human connection the core of customer experiences will bring success.
Rigorous, outcome-based testing will be required when process automation solutions are being evaluated. In areas where there are unsatisfactory results, human interactions cannot – and should not – be replaced.
It may be easy to achieve 90% automation for dealing with common, repetitive questions and processes. But there should always be room for human intervention in the event of an issue – and it should be immediate and not 24 hours later!
Employees can drive greater value by working alongside the chatbot, robot or machine.
Ecosystm Predicts: The Top 5 Customer Experience Trends for 2021
Download Ecosystm’s complimentary report detailing the top 5 customer experience trends for 2021 that your company should pay attention to along with tips on how to stay ahead of the curve.
Remote Working Will Force Contact Centres to Re-evaluate Security Measures
Security has always been a concern for contact centre leaders. Improper data use by agents and agents breaching confidentiality are the biggest security challenges for contact centres. This has been further heightened, especially the fear of agents purposely breaching confidentiality while working from home.
Contact centres are still trying to figure out the best security measures when managing customer data, especially in the work-from-home environment. There is greater scrutiny over security and compliance measures – what agents view, how agents access the data, when agents log in and out of the system. Outsourcing providers will also have to guarantee high levels of security – a trusted relationship and defining the best practices on working from home will not be sufficient.
Many contact centres will trial different methods – from installing video surveillance cameras, desktop monitoring tools and access controls. Others will test technologies that can mask the information captured through mobile devices. This presents immense opportunities for vendors, as contact centres will rely heavily on technology to re-invent their security practices.
Contact Centres will Invest in Conversational AI – Chatbots will No Longer be Enough
Many enterprises have rushed into deploying chatbots with expectations that these engines can solve the problem of high call volumes. The outcomes have often been poor, leaving customers frustrated and opting to interact with a live agent instead. Implementing a basic chatbot does not fully solve the problem and will force companies back to the drawing board.
Conversational AI offers a different experience by designing multiple forms of dialogues and conversations. It requires conversational design and the algorithms go through rigour from the start. The aim should be to make the channel irresistible – one that customers have confidence in, and that can reduce the need to email or call an agent. Successful uses cases have shown that conversational AI can reduce calls and repetitive queries by 70-90%. Ecosystm research finds that contact centres are ramping up their self-service capabilities and their adoption of AI and machine learning.
Offshore Centres will Re-invent Themselves and Make a Comeback
2020 has seen contact centres in offshore locations struggle to offer services to global clients. Many of these operators have been plagued by poor internet connectivity at agents’ homes, and unfavourable home working environments. These outsourcing locations remain vital however, for multiple reasons – for example the range of services offered, agent specialisation, costs or diversity in agent profile.
Contact centre outsourcing providers will make a comeback in 2021 and we can expect new models to appear. Many providers across the globe have been running successful work-from-home only operations for years – other outsourcing providers will learn from these best practices. Organisations will find that bringing jobs back to high-cost locations will incur more costs. A full onshore model may not be the right model for business continuity, and organisations will prefer to have back-up locations to ensure continuity of services if another pandemic or catastrophe happens. Organisations will want to see the outsourcing providers offer them a choice of location – they will prefer some services to be delivered from offshore locations and others to remain onshore.
Digital and Mobile will be the Cornerstone of Deeper Customer Engagement
COVID-19 has changed how customers want to be served, and organisations have had to re-evaluate how they use their channels – e.g. email, web, chat and voice. Customer profiles and expectations have changed over the year and they are more digital savvy and are more likely to interact with brands through digital and mobile apps. They will expect a single point of interaction – for their enquiries and to complete their transactions. For instance, they will expect to chat while filling up shopping carts. Introducing chat capabilities within mobile apps is a good way to impress customers – this can be an effective way to push promotions and upsell. Capabilities such as the ability to directly place a call from a website will make the customer experience exceptional. Customers will expect to move between channels easily when interacting with a brand.
Workplace Collaboration Will be Fully Integrated into Contact Centres
Contact centres will reassess their business and talent models. The focus on employees will be in two major areas:
Productivity. The contact centre floor dynamics have changed in how agents are spread out across outsourcing locations and in-house contact centres. Agents are no longer located in the same room or floor and do not have access to their usual way of work – continual training, digital signage that provides guidance and demonstrates KPIs, conversations with supervisors, managers, and team members for guidance or assistance, easy access to back-office functions and so on. This can impact their productivity.
Engagement. Contact centre staff often work in high-stress environments -chasing sales targets and deadlines, handling complaints – and it is important for managers and supervisors to be able to engage and motivate them constantly. Remote working has further exacerbated the stress for those agents who do not have a conducive working environment at home.
Contact centres will increasingly look to workplace collaboration platforms and tools to improve employee productivity and experience.
Ecosystm Predicts: The Top 5 Contact Centre Trends for 2021
The full findings and implications of The Top 5 Contact Centre Trends for 2021 are available for download from the Ecosystm platform. Create your free account to access more from the Ecosystm Predicts Series, and many other reports, on the Ecosystm platform
Five9, a cloud-based contact centre solutions provider announced the acquisition of intelligent virtual agent (IVA) platform provider, Inference Solutions for about USD 172 million. Five9 and Inference Solutions have been partnering for the last couple of years, with Five9 being a reseller for Inference Solutions’ IVA platform. The acquisition is expected to provide a boost to Five9’s AI portfolio, automate contact centre agent activities and provide AI-based omnichannel self-service solutions.
The need to drive greater automation in the contact centre is high on the agenda, and this acquisition demonstrates how important AI and automation is to contact centre modernisation. The old-fashioned ways of long wait times, being passed on through different menus on the IVR and being asked to repeat yourself through the older speech recognition engines is starting to not only frustrate customers but will become obsolete. Based on Ecosystm’s research, close to 60% of contact centres globally stated that investing in machine learning and AI is a top customer experience priority in the next 12 months.
Inference has come a long way since its inception at Telstra Labs
Inference Solutions (founded in 2005) was spun out of Telstra Labs. It has since expanded to the US and developed a suite of solutions in the IVA segment. They have a good partnership strategy with the leading telecom providers globally as well as the UC/contact centre vendors. Inference Solutions uses resellers such as service providers, UC, and contact centre software providers – and these include AT&T, Cisco (Broadsoft), Momentum Telecom, Nextiva, 8×8 and many others. The Inference Studio solution will see a new release in the next few months where the solution will come pre-built with the ability for the contact centre team to pre-load the contact centre conversations. These can be conversations that have been going on for 6 months or longer. The Studio solution will then be able to analyse and understand the underlying intent of the conversation, match the intent so that it can be used to auto train the bots accurately. That process of matching the intent and training is expensive and if you can automate some elements of that, it will bring the cost of the deployment down. Its solution integrates into NLP engines from Google, AWS, and IBM. In Australia they continue to work on patents in close partnerships with Melbourne University and RMIT. Throughout its journey, Inference has built a good base of customers in the US, UK, and Australia.
Five9 to accelerate on its vision of AI and Cloud
Contact centre modernisation is high on the agenda for many organisations and this will lead them to build AI and automation at the core of their customer strategies. The discussion spans across the CEO, Digital and Innovation, and the Contact Centre teams.
Five9 had acquired Whendu, an iPaaS platform provider empowering businesses and developers with no-code, visual application workflow tool, optimised for contact centres in November 2019, and Virtual Observer, an innovative provider of cloud-based workforce optimisation, also known as Workforce Engagement Management (WEM) in February of this year.
The pandemic has resulted in increased engagement of contact centres with customers. Companies are gradually looking for ways to automate tasks, deliver better communication, speech and text recognition, decipher languages, and implement solutions mimicking humans. As a solution to these challenges, IVAs are being viewed as efficient and effective digital workers for a modern contact centre. IVAs represent increased throughput, more accurate results, and better-informed agents.
Successful use cases have shown that conversational AI can reduce calls and repetitive queries by 70-90%. IVRs with monolithic, complicated menus will start becoming unpopular and force contact centres to embark on a modernisation and automation strategy. If we evaluate the shift in priorities after COVID-19, we see that organisations are ramping up their self-service capabilities and their adopt of AI and machine learning (Figure 1).
The acquisition will give Five9 a foothold in the Asia Pacific region with an initial focus on the Australia market. The Australia market is by far the most advanced cloud contact centre market in the Asia Pacific. Five9 gains a team of staff that will help them fuel the contact centre modernisation discussion across the Asia Pacific. As the region has a complex market, the need to work with local carriers and partners will be critical for further expansion. Five9 has made an important acquisition in building in IVA capability into its CCaaS solution.
Click below to access insights from the Ecosystm Contact Centre Study on visibility into organisations’ priorities when running a Contact Centre (both in-house and outsourced models) and the technologies implemented and being evaluated
5/5 (1) In 2018, DBS Bank came together with AI start-up impress.ai to implement Jim – Job Intelligence Maestro – a chatbot that helps the bank shortlist candidates for positions in their wealth planning team. This is primarily for screening for entry-level positions. Apart from process efficiency, the introduction of AI in the recruitment process is also aimed at eliminating bias and objectively finding the right candidate for the right job. The DBS chatbot uses cognitive and personality tests to assess candidates, as well as providing them with answers to the candidates’ frequently asked questions. The scores are then passed on to actual recruiters who continue with the rest of the recruitment process. DBS claims that they have curtailed the initial assessment time of each applicant by an average of 22 minutes.
While some organisations have started evaluating the use of AI in their HR function, it has not reached a mass-market yet. In the global Ecosystm AI study, we find that nearly 88% of global organisations do not involve HR in their AI projects. However, the use cases of AI in HR are many and the function should be an active stakeholder in AI investments in customer-focused industries.
Telstra employs AI to vet Applicants
Last month, Australia’s biggest telecommunications provider Telstra announced its plans to hire 1,000 temporary contact centre staff in Australia to meet the surge in demand amidst the global pandemic. In response to the openings, Telstra received overwhelming 19,000 applications to go through and filter, with limited workforce. To make the recruitment process more efficient, the company has been using AI to filter the applications – and has been able to make initial offers two weeks from the screening. The AI software takes the candidates’ inputs and processes them to find the right match for the required skills. The candidates are also presented with cognitive games to measure their assessment scores.
Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Audrey William speaks about the pressure on companies such as Telstra to hire faster for their contact centres. “Several organisations are needing to replace agents in their offshore locations and hire agents onshore. Since this is crucial to the customer experience they deliver, speed is of essence.” However, William warns that the job does not stop with recruiting the right number of agents. “HR teams will need to follow through with a number of processes including setting up home-based employees, training them adequately for the high volume of voice and non-voice interactions and compliance and so on.”
The Future of AI in HR
William sees more companies adopting AI in their HR practices in the Workplace of the Future – and the role of AI will not be restricted to recruitment alone. “A satisfied employee will go the extra mile to deliver better customer experience and it is important to keep evaluating how satisfied your employees are. AI-driven sentiment analysis will replace employee surveys which can be subjective in nature. This will include assessing the spoken words and the emotions of an individual which cannot be captured in a survey.”
In the future, William sees an intelligent conversational AI platform as an HR feedback and engagement platform for staff to engage on what they would like to see, what they are unhappy about, their workplace issues, what they consider their successes and so on. This will be actionable intelligence for HR teams. “But for a conversational AI platform to work well and to encourage users within the organisation to use it, it must be designed well. While it has to be engaging to ensure employee uptake, the design does not stop at user experience. It must include a careful evaluation of the various data sets that should be assessed and how the AI can get easy access to that data.”
AI and Ethics
With the increased use of AI, the elephant in the room is always ethical considerations. While the future may see HR practices using conversational AI platforms, how ethical is it to evaluate your employees constantly and what will be the impact on them? How will the organisation use that data? Will it end up giving employers the right reasons to reduce manpower at will? These and allied issues are areas where stricter government mandates are required.
Going back to AI-assisted recruitment, William warns, “Bias must be assessed from all angles – race, education, gender, voice, accents. Whilst many platforms claim that their solution removes bias, the most important part of getting this right is to make sure that the input data is right from the start. The outcomes desired from the process must be tested – and tested in many different ways – before the organisation can start using AI to eliminate bias. There is also the added angle of the ethical use of the data.”