Chambers With A View

The Future Of Customer Service

Written by John Chambers

This is the twelfth in a planned series of exclusive columns former Cisco Executive Chairman and CEO John Chambers is producing for The Innovator. Chambers, who is widely considered one of the best performing U.S. CEOs during his 25+ year tenure at Cisco, helped grow the company from $70 million when he joined in 1991, to $1.2 billion when he became CEO in 1995, to $47 billion when he stepped down as CEO in 2015. As Executive Chairman, a position Chambers held until December 2017, he led the Board of Directors and provided counsel to the CEO and leadership team on strategy, digital transformation and strategic partnerships, Chambers oversaw 180 mergers and acquisitions  during his tenure at Cisco and managed the company through multiple economic downturns  He currently runs JC2 Ventures as CEO and serves as an advisor to heads of state, including France’s Emmanuel Macron and India’s Narendra Modi.  In this column Chambers talks about the future of customer service.

ASAPP, a New York City-based startup that makes artificial intelligence software for call center agents, announced on May 19 that it had raised $120 million, doubling the company’s valuation to $1.6 billion. I am one of ASAPP’s investors through JC2 Ventures. What’s cool about ASAPP is that their software does not replace human call center agents, but rather uses AI to send agents real-time suggestions of what to say in response to customers’ comments. For web chats, agents are presented with multiple response options that can be sent with the click of a button, saving time for agents and customers alike.

Another one of my portfolio companies, Uniphore, which raised $140 million in April, offers natural language processing-based transcription and analytics, conversational AI assistants to handle customer service, and voice authentication tools. Uniphore is now expanding into video conversations, which is an exciting new aspect of customer service, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

I invested in these two companies because they embody the future of customer service — a business market transition that is going to be huge. Customer service is changing and emerging technologies will transform how you interact with and deliver value to your customers, regardless of the size of your organization or where you are in the world.

Increasingly, we will shift away from an experience that people hate —interfacing with machines that are not very good at their jobs — to a new approach that makes it easy to interface with a combination of people and machines. Gone will be the days when an agent asks, ‘What’s your mother’s maiden name?’ and ‘What’s your secret password for this application?’ with no idea of whether you are a great customer or how long you’ve been loyal to the company. Going forward, you’ll have a human agent, who could physically be in a call center or working from home, working in parallel with AI.

Picture this: As soon as an agent picks up his or her phone, information about the customer will pop up on their screen. Thanks to AI technology, the human agent will know automatically that the customer has called three times in the last week and that the issue they’re calling about has not been resolved. AI will be used to sense that the customer is agitated and will instruct the agent to show more empathy. It can propose several concrete ways the human agent can help the customer solve the problem. Once the problem is resolved, AI will prompt the agent to end the call with a response such as, “Here’s my number — I’m here if you need me. Thank you and have a wonderful day.” Long story short, the call and overall experience will be a success thanks to the human agent combined with the power of AI.

The combination of humans empowered by technology is powerful and we’re just now scratching the surface of what is possible. When it comes to customer service specifically, we do know for sure that it’s not just consumers that will reap the benefits of an improved customer service experience, employers are set to benefit financially. Since most products are largely commodity-based, customer service determines who gets the order and how much people are willing to pay.

This market transition and the move to natural language processing, which is AI that can interpret and respond to human language, is what drove Microsoft to pay $19.7 billion for Nuance Communications in April of this year. That acquisition underscores how voice is becoming a more prevalent means of communicating in the digital world and how, going forward, conversational AI will be the standard approach to customer service. While Microsoft said it will first target the health care sector with Nuance’s technology, my expectation is that we’ll see Microsoft use this technology as the main customer interface in many other verticals.

Another example of how conversational AI will accelerate and open major application areas and change the way we work, learn, live, and play can be found in the customer identification process. Pindrop, another one of my portfolio companies, provides risk scoring for phone calls to detect fraud and authenticate callers by analyzing 147 different features of a phone call. I believe voice will be the primary way to securely identify people, especially in the age of COVID when no one wants to put their finger on top of a surface that hundreds of other people have touched.

While it is still too early to know who is going to win, I can tell you this — if you are in business and you’re not using AI and natural language processing to improve your customer environment, you are not only going to get disrupted, you’re going to be left behind as roadkill. My advice to businesses is to start testing and playing with the technology now because this market is going to move rapidly. Conduct proof of concept trials with specific outcomes in mind.  The key is to pick the right applications for the right departments within your company — which group you pick to test the technology is often as important as the technology you choose. Get moving and literally walk the talk.

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About the author

John Chambers