Microsoft and 24/7 Merge Contact Center Solutions

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Microsoft announced a broad-ranging partnership with 24/7, a Campbell, Calif.–based provider of contact center software and services that include big data analytics. The two companies will combine their technologies for interactive self-service across mobile, Web, and voice channels; big data analytics; and speech and conversational interfaces to create a next-generation cloud platform for customer service.

The combined predictive experience platform will be able to manage more than 2.5 billion speech and online self-service interactions annually.

The deal, announced February 7, also involves long-term intellectual property licensing that provides broad coverage under Microsoft's patent portfolio for speech-related technologies, Microsoft taking an ownership stake in 24/7, and the shifting of responsibilities of some Microsoft employees.

Announcement of this new partnership comes just as 24/7 for the first time confirmed its acquisition of Voxify, a provider of interactive voice response technology. 24/7 made the acquisition in November, but it was not publicly announced, mainly because of the negotiations with Microsoft at the time, according to Kathy Juve, chief marketing officer at 24/7.

As a result of that acquisition, John Gengarella, CEO of Voxify, joined 24/7 as chief revenue officer and Patrick Nguyen, cofounder of Voxify, is chief technology officer. The vast majority of employees remained onboard, as did its customers, Juve says.

24/7 will now have access to Microsoft's Tellme speech and natural language technologies for natural user experiences in customer service. It also plans to integrate its solutions with Microsoft's Windows Phone mobile operating system, Bing search engine, and Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

"We're excited about this, because both companies see search as a key jumping-off point for customer service," says Ilya Bukshteyn, senior director of Microsoft's Online Services Division. "And with us taking Bing across the screen, it's going to be great to be able to take that from just showing blue links for people who want customer service to actually being able to pull them to the right customer service experience."

Microsoft acquired Tellme Networks in 2007 and has since expanded the company's directory assistance, enterprise customer service, and voice-enabled mobile search technologies into other areas.

"Now, what we've seen in the last year is a little bit of divergence in those businesses," Bukshteyn says. "What we're hearing from IVR customers is really much more of a focus on the changes going on more broadly in customer service rather than just narrowly in IVR. We're really seeing a lot of pressures on customer service, whether it's the impact of social media as a channel, whether it's connective mobile devices, all the different channels consumers are using these days, even the TV moving forward. We think of that trend as more natural user interfaces across all devices for customer service."

The other big trend, says Bukshteyn, is being able to predict what the consumer wants by using machine learning and analytics, or big data, and applying that across all channels.

"When you combine those two trends, we came to believe in the last year that customer service as an industry was at an inflection point," Bukshteyn says. "It was ready to move from the current fragmented state, where businesses are on their own to deploy different point solutions for different channels and try to stitch them together. We felt the first company to offer a true end-to-end customer service cloud solution would be very disruptive in this market."

That's what made 24/7 such an attractive partner, according to Bukshteyn. "We found 24/7 when it acquired Voxify, which was one of our leading partners in the IVR space. We felt the combination of our IVR assets and their big data focus would be unique in the industry and very compelling," he says.

PV Kannan, CEO of 24/7, agrees. "By bringing Microsoft's interactive self-service technology together with 24/7's predictive consumer experience technology into one unified cloud platform, we will deliver solutions and services that truly enable businesses to differentiate through customer service," he said in a statement.

Dan Miller, senior analyst at Opus Research, sees the companies as a good fit. "The combination of Microsoft/Tellme, 24/7, and Voxify exposes a new terrain for future competition in multimodal self-service and customer care," he says. "Microsoft finds a home for Tellme that brings together investments that both 24/7 and Voxify have made in predictive experience along with Tellme's legacy in accurate IVR, as well as its customer base."

In the past four to five years, 24/7 has invested heavily in its predictive experience platform, which allows for intuitive software-led customer experience interactions online, according to Juve.

"Our experience previously had been on focusing on our large enterprise customers in industries, including financial services, airlines, [and] technology companies, to improve their ability by leveraging our cloud-based predictive experience platform to service their customers online," Juve says. "We saw a real opportunity in the last year when our customers were coming to us and saying they'd like to replicate this in the IVR and other channels…. There really wasn't a solution that was a single software platform, particularly one in the cloud.

"We decided that it would be great to combine the capabilities with speech to our platform so that we could allow our enterprise customers to serve their customers across multiple channels using single software," she adds.

Juve also maintains that customer service today is still "somewhat caught in the Dark Ages" when it comes to technology, pointing out a disconnect between customer interactions and the technology used to facilitate them.

"We're trying to bring these pieces together—the big data element with the natural user interface…along with machine learning and the ability for our system to continuously learn interactions across any device, whether it's mobile or online, to provide a better consumer experience," she says.

Companies that are already working with both Microsoft and 24/7 include Avis Budget Group, Capital One, and United Airlines.

"Today it's becoming quickly natural for us as individuals to speak to a device the way we would speak to a friend," says Bukshteyn. "There's no reason why customer service can't be as natural, both in terms of the experience, the interaction, and in terms of how well a business can anticipate what you're trying to do."

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