Speech and AI: From Tipping Point to Table Stakes

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The tipping point in the use of speech technologies was roughly four decades in the making—from advancement on the core to point solutions to interconnected applications across departments and industries. But it wasn’t until the last two years that we finally reached it and started to experience the full impact—and it’s tremendous.

This was a central theme of the winter issue of this magazine, which took a deep look at the state of the speech technology industry today. Unsurprisingly, a big part of the story was the surge in customer care solution adoption driven by COVID. Whether it was the rapid movement to cloud contact centers with work-from-home agent models or the wholesale adoption of digital channels by consumers seeking contactless, frictionless business engagement, investment in speech and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies became even more critical during the pandemic.

Speech and AI Were Ready to Launch

But in reality, speech and AI technologies were poised to fulfill their promise long before that. I’d posit that four things were in play to hoist acceptance and adoption a full two years before the silver lining of the pandemic’s very dark cloud gave them a boost:

• Companies moved from talking about AI in a narrow way (focused on point solutions like customer-facing virtual assistants) to effectively planning for and deploying AI-enriched solutions across the customer contact landscape in a way that improves both the customer and employee experience.

• The number of full contact center suite providers, such as Alvaria (formerly Aspect Software), Genesys, Five9, and 8x8, mushroomed. Many now have business units that focus solely on AI, and some have developed centers of excellence (CoE) with a focus on integrating AI-infused solutions into customer environments. Together these providers offer a vast and growing array of applications and capabilities, including intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs), predictive routing, process automation, voice biometrics, assisted and unassisted robotic process automation, and automated forecasting and quality assurance.

• Merger-and-acquisition activity increased to obtain AI talent and capabilities. For instance, in the past year, NICE inContact acquired Brand Embassy to incorporate new digital channels; Enghouse Interactive acquired Vidyo for videoconferencing; Cisco acquired Voicea for transcription and conversational AI, Five9 acquired Inference Solutions for conversational AI, and Microsoft acquired Nuance, ostensibly for healthcare (but let’s be honest, for a lot more than that).

• While partnerships with speech technology and AI vendors grew in scale and importance to contact center providers, innovating on top of partner-provided technology became the key differentiator for these companies.

Conversational AI and Process Automation

This last aspect is the most important. With all eyes turned to AI, those providers fully in on infusing AI into customer contact have judiciously applied conversational AI and process automation across platforms to improve workflow throughout the customer journey, add new customer touchpoints, speed service delivery, and analyze workflow and interactions for continuous improvements.

In doing so, contact center providers have forged ahead by employing multiple core speech and AI products and fully developed solutions within their platforms. For instance, companies built conversational interfaces to IVAs and bots using AI frameworks such as Google’s Dialogflow, IBM’s Watson, Facebook’s Wit.ai, Microsoft’s LUIS, Amazon’s Lex, or from some open-source projects. Some providers built products that, based on use case or business need, allowed customers to swap out core providers. More recent developments are the creation of no- or low-code development platforms that allow end users with limited IT resources to quickly create new capabilities or design-once-and-deploy applications, such as conversational interfaces, across multiple voice- or text-based touchpoints.

Finally, contact center providers also enriched offerings through specialists in key areas. Examples include Uniphore, with cross-organizational conversational AI automation that can effectively bridge the front and back office; Resolve.ai, with a candy store of AI and speech to drive end-to-end task resolution from the front to the back office; and Zammo.ai’s conversational AI enabling extremely rapid development of voice solutions that are developed once and extended anywhere.

The table stakes have definitively changed. Companies that are giving lip service to speech and AI and aren’t internally developing and co-developing with partners will lose the race to transform customer care. 

Nancy Jamison is an industry director in Information and Communications Technologies at Frost & Sullivan. She can be reached at nancy.jamison@frost.com, or follow her on Twitter @NancyJami.

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