Uniphore, a provider of Conversational Automation solutions, has announced their intention to acquire Jacada, an Israel-based autonomous customer experience solution provider. Jacada’s low-code/no-code platform will help Uniphore solve complex contact centre challenges using AI and automation. Jacada’s strengths include a low-code optimised interface and AI-enabled contact centre capabilities leading to automation across agent and customer engagements, enhanced knowledge-based guidance for agents and end-to-end analytics and insights.
Jacada has been in the market for around three decades and over time they have built various unified desktop and process optimisation products including RPA for customer service and support.
The acquisition follows Uniphore’s USD 140 million Series D funding round led by Sorenson Capital Partners in March 2021. Earlier this year, Uniphore acquired Emotion Research Lab to add AI and machine learning video capabilities that identify the emotion and engagement levels over video-based communications.
Growing Importance of Agent Assist Solutions
With agents facing pressure in offering customers satisfactory outcomes and at the same time having to manage the high volume of inbound transactions, Agent Assist solutions are high on the agenda for organisations. Remote working has made things even more complex where agents are cut off from their supervisors and not able to walk up to them to seek guidance. These “immediate challenges” have not yet been addressed in every contact centre even a year after the crisis. This presents a good opportunity for Uniphore to own the front and back-office integration piece. The back-office integration segment has become increasingly important as there is a need to fulfill customer requests by ensuring the conversation thread with back-office systems is followed through and communicated back to the agent. This need was heightened during the pandemic due to delays in product arrivals, in shipments, and other delays and miscommunication.
The big challenge also lies in making Agent Assist help the agent perform better and not make their lives more stressful! The design element of Agent Assist is critical. The solution must fit well into the other systems and applications such as CRM, Knowledge Management, and Speech Analytics. You don’t want another solution being pushed on to the agents when they are under pressure to meet customer demands during a 15-minute call.
Conversational Automation and Agent Assist must be evaluated carefully as you are integrating the solution into multiple environments with the clear objective of ensuring that agents only get the right information, in a manner that makes sense for them and at appropriate intervals.
The Growing Importance of Low-code No-code (LCNC)
As contact centres focus on business agility and pivoting fast to cope with sudden market shifts, organisations will benefit from moving programming closer to the contact centre – requiring very little assistance from IT teams.
Having a LCNC platform will now allow Uniphore to build front and back-office experiences in a multi-vendor environment. The need to use intelligent APIs to build workflows is high on the agenda and it helps eradicate the costly efforts and time spent on developers to further extract and build new capabilities at speed.
Jacada has been pushing their value proposition on RPA and Conversational Automation for some time now and this blends well with where Uniphore is going with AI and Automation in the contact centre space. The acquisition will also give Uniphore access to other contact centre technologies that will help them to compete better with a wider range of solutions. With the challenges in managing the agent experience, we can also expect the Workforce Experience Management (WEM) segment to play an important role and intersect with Agent Assist to manage and elevate the agent experience.
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.