July 28, 2014 Issue
The Most Powerful Name In Corporate News and Information
Cloud-Based AI Voice Self-Service for Medium to Large Businesses
Tom has over 25 years of experience focused primarily on customer experience and contact center operations and technology. Prior to joining SmartAction, he was a Principal at Deloitte Consulting where he was the national leader of its Customer Operations Practice. The focus of Tom’s career has been helping organizations improve their customer facing operations, especially as it relates to contact center service, sales and support. Tom’s previous clients have included a significant number of Fortune 1000 companies and over the years he has served clients in most industry sectors including Retail, Financial Services, Telecommunications, and Healthcare. His knowledge of the contact center industry includes many aspects of telephony technology, operational efficiency, outsourcing, and overall customer service strategy. Tom graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science, minor Asian Studies, and a concentration in Economics from DePauw University.
SmartAction offers one-of-a-kind Artificial Intelligence (AI) voice self-service for medium to large businesses. We use a cloud-based technology grounded in purpose-driven Artificial Intelligence that utilizes Natural Language speech capabilities as a means to complete self-service calls. Commonly used for providing customer service, our Intelligent Voice Automation technology allows companies to handle complex customer interactions with an intuitive, resourceful, and cognizant AI agent.
Learn more at
www.smartaction.com or call 888-882-9520.
390 N. Sepulveda Blvd.
CEOCFO: Mr. Lewis, would you tell us the concept for SmartAction?
Mr. Lewis: The concept is the intersection between Artificial Intelligence and voice self-service, commonly known as an IVR or Interactive Voice Response.
CEOCFO: What have you figured out at SmartAction?
Mr. Lewis: The founder, Peter Voss, started the company in 2002 as an Artificial Intelligence Research company. He had some incredible breakthroughs and in 2007, there was a decision made to commercialize the R&D effort. That yielded the creation of SmartAction as a commercial entity devoted to using Artificial Intelligence within a voice self-service platform. However, because it was not started as a call center technology or IVR company, all the infrastructure, assumptions, and framework by which our solution was built is completely unlike any other existing IVR. In particular, SmartAction uses 100% Natural Language for every utterance and piece of the conversation. This means, for example, that unlike directed dialogue, which requires specific responses like “yes” or “no” when asking a simple yes/no question, our use of Natural Language allows us to also handle redirects and an entire change in the conversation flow, not just “yes” or “no.” Here is another way to think about it. With a website, you have buttons, links, and fields and it is brought together by a Graphical User Interface or a GUI. SmartAction’s Intelligent Voice Automation is a Voice User Interface (VUI) with the ability to conduct a conversation instead of an obnoxious series of back and forth confirmations.
CEOCFO: How would a typical phone conversation go?
Mr. Lewis: The best way to think about it is that it is a conversation and one that would be similar or extremely analogous to what you would have with a live call center agent. To get a better sense of this, you can visit www.smartaction.com/demo and hear how our system interacts with callers. One of our customers does a customer satisfaction survey with their customers around their agent performance and the SmartAction performance. Every month they share with us the results, and SmartAction consistently has a higher customer satisfaction rating and lower effort score. If you are familiar with a book by Matt Dixon called The Effortless Experience, effort is the key driver that determines how the consumer is going to interact based on the channel. They are going to pick the channel that is the easiest and requires the least amount of effort to get the task done. Sometimes they are making the decision that they are going to call, but now we are the front of that call or voice conversation. If we are able to engage the customer early in a conversational way and they view that it will take less effort, then we find that they finish the conversation with us and the completion rate, which is key from a cost containment perspective, is much higher.
CEOCFO: Are the clients setting the parameters?
Mr. Lewis: The process of developing applications with our clients is collaborative. Together we provide direction for the call; however, the caller shapes the end-user experience. Our philosophy is that if the caller wants to talk to a human or jump to their account balance, then they should be able to do that because it is a conversation. You do not have to wait for a particular point in the conversation to ask for an agent. We understand people have a purpose for their call and have their own preferences or ways of accomplishing that. Locking them into circular menus or IVR (Interactive Voice Response) jail is not the right way to create a good caller experience. We aim to create interactive experiences unlike anything else they have tried. Our biggest obstacle is the negative reputation IVRs already have. When people call our system, it is not immediately obvious how different it is, and therefore they have to experience it before they realize it has greater capabilities than conventional IVRs. Since most companies around the world use low-level and underdeveloped systems, people expect a terrible performance and poor IVR experience. Unfortunately we are saddled with that same label, and we have to continue working to earn a differentiated moniker.
CEOCFO: How do you do that?
Mr. Lewis: We do it by having a conversation that begins the same way an agent would. We may begin by simply asking, “How may I help you?” Beyond that, we have the advantage of pulling data from multiple sources (using big data or an omni-channel approach) and being able to process it quickly. Let me draw an analogy to help illustrate my meaning. If you walk into a bank, theoretically the teller you approach should be able to know everything about your history and relationship with that bank. If the bank is collecting that data, the teller could sit down and research your account pulling together all of that information so they understand your exact situation before you even say anything. Wouldn’t that be great? Unfortunately, the time it takes for to you to walk in the door and arrive at the teller is insufficient for a human to be able to consume, digest, and interpret all that information. On the other hand, a computer can do that quickly. We can incorporate a huge variety of information and history into our interactions to provide context and relevance for the conversation. If you went into the bank every week and did a wire transfer, then every week would be like Groundhog Day for both the bank teller and the customer. Our system would notice the repetition and interpret that as another bank transfer like the one you did previously, except this time it is $400 instead of $500. That kind of conversation entices customers to use the system because it is able to anticipate their needs and provide an effortless experience.
CEOCFO: Are some people annoyed or put off by the fact that the system is almost thinking ahead?
Mr. Lewis: Not at all. Actually, it sometimes adds appeal for using the system. If you were talking with a person, you might be embarrassed if they really did know everything about you or the reason for your call. For example, calling a health care provider to receive test results or simply rescheduling an appointment for the 4th time without having to go into personal details. A machine is just impersonal enough to make it a good vehicle to have that conversation without experiencing that embarrassment. At first glance it may seem a little big brother like, but a machine is not judging them based on that information.
CEOCFO: Are there particular types of companies that will seek out SmartAction?
Mr. Lewis: When I was a consultant and, prior to this job, I was a partner at Deloitte Consulting. I led their contact center advisory practice for about thirteen years. I used to say that, as a contact center advisor, the amount of information that you needed about a particular company or industry was an inch thick at a superficial level. You needed to be able to use industry terminology. Below that veneer, everything about running a call-center from one industry to the next is the 80/20 rule or 90/10 rule and is virtually the same. When you think about the adoption of any technology in the call center, it will pretty much apply to any industry. Some industries are much further along than others and the adoption may be faster or slower. At the moment we are finding huge success in retail and e-commerce. We have a significant number of services companies we are helping, whether it is tech support, or internal check-in and checkout, or scheduling calls. We want to engage with companies across multiple industries around business processes that are complex. We love the challenge.
CEOCFO: When you are speaking with a prospective client, do they understand the difference immediately and have they sought you out for the difference?
Mr. Lewis: We have a long way to go in exposing our solution in the customer service arena. We have a number of clients that assume all we do is out of the gate is basic routing, as in “for account management, press 1.” We can do that, but it only utilizes 1% of our solution. We have to educate on how much further we can go beyond routing. Some people understand it right away and for some people it is a little bit of a journey. Getting under the hood to understand the technology and the execution of how it can enhance their company is part of the journey.
The final piece is support. Many of these companies have dealt with vendors of all shapes and sizes. When I came into this position over a year ago, I was enamored by the technology. Then, I found the golden jewel of the organization was our customer operations group, which takes our clients from project kick-off, through implementation, and into ongoing support. Our customers rave about that group. The combination of a great technology and a great team to support it is highly sought after and our clients appreciate it.
CEOCFO: What have you learned over the last year that has changed your approach? What might have surprised you?
Mr. Lewis: As I have gotten deeper and deeper into the sales cycle, competing with the technology that is out there today, I have learned that we do still have the best solution and a ton of headroom in terms of how advanced we are, compared to those other companies. When they will catch up, and how much R&D we need to continue to invest to keep us ahead is something that challenges me. The other piece is that we could have the best possible product in the world, but it does not do anybody any good if nobody knows about it. The thing I am struggling with is having come from being a partner at Deloitte, which is a well-known brand, to a small company called SmartAction, which nobody has heard of. To get people to be aware of SmartAction and to trust and believe in its value proposition, that marketing and sales exercise is clearly my biggest challenge.
CEOCFO: How are you addressing it right now?
Mr. Lewis: I am pleased to report that we have hired two new executives to take on that challenge, both the VP of Marketing and the SVP of Sales who have deep bench strength in terms of their experiences in each. We have invested significantly more this year than we have in prior years in both marketing and our sales support. The issue is that when people hear our story, it is a great experience, but the problem is that we feel like we have not had enough exposure up to this point, so I am expecting that leadership to take us there.
CEOCFO: Do you believe that most companies care about providing a better experience?
Mr. Lewis: When I was a consultant, I would ask clients what the compelling event or the motivation was. I would boil it down to three things; it is a discussion around cost reduction, customer experience, and revenue enhancement. Revenue enhancement was typically only somewhere between 2% and 5% of the projects I used to do. The rest of it was almost all customer experience, but you could never have a customer experience conversation without somebody saying, “But for less money.” The SmartAction voice self-service platform helps companies save 10-20% more than traditional IVRs, with customer experience scores even better than those of a live agent. While I believe that companies are committed to improving the customer experience, and I believe that it is a differentiator, they also expect to be able to do it for less. Getting the customer to self-serve is, in some cases, a great way to reduce costs. I think in the downturn of 2001, those who invested in their customer experience, emerged from that much stronger. When the downturn happened in 2007 and 2008, it was almost as if nobody needed to learn that lesson again because they remembered it. People were investing in customer experience and the call center at that point. The way to compete in the marketplace is to win the heart of the customer, and you do that through customer experience. I do not believe that it is a good strategy to focus on those moments of ‘wow’ as point solutions to wowing your customer; it needs to be a steady, across-the-board, supreme service.
CEOCFO: What is next for SmartAction?
Our growth last year was close to 90% and we expect to do the same this
year, so we are trying to grow revenue and client base. When you consider
the Artificial Intelligence capabilities inside the engine, we have focused
on the voice channel because the opportunity is wide and open, and there is
plenty to go after. Once people are aware of us, there is plenty of
opportunity there. Other channels and capabilities are all part of the
future. We are a well-funded private company, but to accelerate our growth
in a three to five year timeframe, we will be interested in a strategic
transaction. The good news is that being profitable and not needing the
money means that we will be able to make good choices about those
investments and opportunities.
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