Apr
10
2019
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Salesforce and Google want to build a smarter customer service experience

Anyone who has dealt with bad customer service has felt frustration with the lack of basic understanding of who you are as a customer and what you need. Google and Salesforce feel your pain, and today the two companies expanded their partnership to try and create a smarter customer service experience.

The goal is to combine Salesforce’s customer knowledge with Google’s customer service-related AI products and build on the strengths of the combined solution to produce a better customer service experience, whether that’s with an agent or a chatbot..

Bill Patterson, executive vice president for Salesforce Service Cloud, gets that bad customer service is a source of vexation for many consumers, but his goal is to change that. Patterson points out that Google and Salesforce have been working together since 2017, but mostly on sales- and marketing-related projects. Today’s announcement marks the first time they are working on a customer service solution together.

For starters, the partnership is looking at the human customer service agent experience.”The combination of Google Contact Center AI, which highlights the language and the stream of intelligence that comes through that interaction, combined with the customer data and the business process information that that Salesforce has, really makes that an incredibly enriching experience for agents,” Patterson explained.

The Google software will understand voice and intent, and have access to a set of external information like weather or news events that might be having an impact on the customers, while Salesforce looks at the hard data it stores about the customer such as who they are, their buying history and previous interactions.

The companies believe that by bringing these two types of data together, they can surface relevant information in real time to help the agent give the best answer. It may be the best article or it could be just suggesting that a shipment might be late because of bad weather in the area.

Customer service agent screen showing information surfaced by intelligent layers in Google and Salesforce

The second part of the announcement involves improving the chatbot experience. We’ve all dealt with rigid chatbots, who can’t understand your request. Sure, it can sometimes channel your call to the right person, but if you have any question outside the most basic ones, it tends to get stuck, while you scream “Operator! I said OPERATOR!” (Or at least I do.)

Google and Salesforce are hoping to change that by bringing together Einstein, Salesforce’s artificial intelligence layer and Google Natural Language Understanding (NLU) in its Google Dialogflow product to better understand the request, monitor the sentiment and direct you to a human operator before you get frustrated.

Patterson’s department, which is on a $3.8 billion run rate, is poised to become the largest revenue producer in the Salesforce family by the end of the year. The company itself is on a run rate over $14 billion.

“So many organizations just struggle with primitives of great customer service and experience. We have a lot of passion for making everyday interaction better with agents,” he said. Maybe this partnership will bring some much needed improvement.

Mar
19
2019
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Salesforce update brings AI and Quip to customer service chat experience

When Salesforce introduced Einstein, its artificial intelligence platform in 2016, it was laying the ground work for artificial intelligence underpinnings across the platform. Since then the company has introduced a variety of AI enhancements to the Salesforce product family. Today, customer service got some AI updates.

The goal of any customer service interaction is to get the customer answers as quickly as possible. Many users opt to use chat over phone, and Salesforce has added some AI features to help customer service agents get answers more quickly in the chat interface. (The company hinted that phone customer service enhancements are coming.)

For starters, Salesforce is using machine learning to deliver article recommendations, response recommendations and next best actions to the agent in real time as they interact with customers.  “With Einstein article recommendations, we can use machine learning on past cases and we can look at how articles were used to successfully solve similar cases in the past, and serve up the best article right in the console to help the agent with the case,” Martha Walchuk, senior director of product marketing for Salesforce Service Cloud explained.

Salesforce Service Console. Screenshot: Salesforce

The company is also using similar technology to provide response recommendations, which the agent can copy and paste into the chat to speed up the time to response. Before the interaction ends, the company can offer the next best action (which was announced last year) based on the conversation. For example, they could offer related information, an upsell recommendation or whatever type of action the customer defines.

Salesforce is also using machine learning to help route each person to the most appropriate customer service rep. As Salesforce describes it, this feature uses machine learning to filter cases and route them to the right queue or agent automatically, based on defined criteria such as best qualified agent or past outcomes.

Finally, the company is embedding Quip, the company it acquired in 2016 for $750 million, into the customer service console to allow agents to communicate with one another to find answers to difficult problems. That not only helps solve the issues faster, the conversations themselves become part of the knowledge base, which Salesforce can draw upon to help teach the machine learning algorithms about the correct responses to commonly asked questions in the future.

As with the Oracle AI announcement this morning, this use of artificial intelligence in sales, service and marketing is part of a much broader industry trend, as these companies try to inject intelligence into workflows to make them run more efficiently.

Feb
14
2019
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Zendesk just hired three former Microsoft, Salesforce and Adobe execs

Today, Zendesk announced it has hired three new executives — Elisabeth Zornes, former general manager of global support for Microsoft Office, as Zendesk’s first chief customer officer; former Adobe executive Colleen Berube as chief information officer and former Salesforce executive Shawna Wolverton as senior vice president, product.

The company emphasized that the hirings were about expanding the executive suite and bringing in top people to help the company grow and move into larger enterprise organizations.

From left to right: Shawna Wolverton, Colleen Berube and Elisabeth Zornes

Zornes comes to Zendesk with 20 years of experience including time at Microsoft working in a variety of roles around Microsoft Office. She says that what attracted her to Zendesk was its focus on the customer.

“When I look at businesses today, no matter what size, what type or what geography, they can agree on one thing: customer experience is the rocket fuel to drive success. Zendesk has positioned itself as a technology company that empowers companies of all kinds to drive a new level of success by focusing on their customer experience, and helping them to be at the forefront of that was a very intriguing opportunity for me,” Zornes told TechCrunch.

New CIO Berube, who comes with two decades of experience, also sees her new job as a chance to have an impact on customer experience and help companies that are trying to transform into digital organizations. “Customer experience is the linchpin for all organizations to succeed in the digital age. My background is broad, having shepherded many different types of companies through digital transformations, and developing and running modern IT organizations,” she said.

Her boss, CEO and co-founder Mikkel Svane, sees someone who can help continue to grow the company and develop the product. “We looked specifically for a CIO with a modern mindset who understands the challenges of large organizations trying to keep up with customer expectations today,” Svane told TechCrunch.

As for senior VP of product Wolverton, she comes with 15 years of experience, including a stint as head of product at Salesforce. She said that coming to Zendesk was about having an impact on a modern SaaS product. “The opportunity to build a modern, public, cloud-native CRM platform with Sunshine was a large part of my decision to join,” she said.

The three leaders have already joined the organization — Wolverton and Berube joined last month and Zornes started just this week.

Dec
05
2018
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Salesforce wants to deliver more automated field service using IoT data

Salesforce has been talking about the Internet of Things for some time as a way to empower field service workers. Today, the company announced Field Service Lightning, a new component designed to deliver automated IoT data to service technicians in the field on their mobile devices.

Once you connect sensors in the field to Service Cloud, you can make this information available in an automated fashion to human customer service agents and pull in other data about the customer from Salesforce’s CRM system to give the CSR a more complete picture of the customer.

“Drawing on IoT signals surfaced in the Service Cloud console, agents can gauge whether device failure is imminent, quickly determine the source of the problem (often before the customer is even aware a problem exists) and dispatch the right mobile worker with the right skill set,” Salesforce’s SVP and GM for Salesforce Field Service Lightning Paolo Bergamo wrote in a blog post introducing the new feature.

The field service industry has been talking for years about using IoT data from the field to deliver more proactive service and automate the customer service and repair process. That’s precisely what this new feature is designed to do. Let’s say you have a “smart home” with a heating and cooling system that can transmit data to the company that installed your equipment. With a system like this in place, the sensors could tell your HVAC dealer that a part is ready to break down and automatically start a repair process (that would presumably include calling the customer to tell them about it). When a CSR determines a repair visit is required, the repair technician would receive all the details on their smart phone.

Customer Service Console view. Gif: SalesforceIt also could provide a smoother experience because the repair technician can prepare before he or she leaves for the visit with the right equipment and parts for the job and a better understanding of what needs to be done before arriving at the customer location. This should theoretically lead to more efficient service calls.

All of this is in line with a vision the field service industry has been talking about for some time that you could sell a subscription to a device like an air conditioning system instead of the device itself. This would mean that the dealer would be responsible for keeping it up and running and having access to data like this could help that vision to become closer to reality.

In reality, most companies are probably not ready to implement a system like this and most equipment in the field has not been fit with sensors to deliver this information to the Service Cloud. Still, companies like Salesforce, ServiceNow and ServiceMax (owned by GE) want to release products like this for early adopters and to have something in place as more companies look to put smarter systems in place in the field.

Sep
25
2018
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Salesforce wants to end customer service frustration with Customer 360

How many times have you called into a company, answered a bunch of preliminary questions about the purpose of your call, then found that those answers didn’t make their way to the CSR who ultimately took your call.

This usually is because System A can’t talk to System B and it’s frustrating for the caller, who is already angry about having to repeat the same information again. Salesforce wants to help bring an end to that problem with their new Customer 360 product announced today at Dreamforce, the company’s customer conference taking place this week in San Francisco.

What’s interesting about Customer 360 from a product development perspective is that Salesforce took the technology from the $6.5 billion Mulesoft acquisition, and didn’t just turn that into a product, it also used the same technology internally to pull the various pieces together into a more unified view of the Salesforce product family. This should in theory allow the customer service representative talking to you on the phone to get the total picture of your interactions with the company, thereby reducing that need to repeat yourself because the information wasn’t passed on.

Screenshot: Salesforce

The idea here is to bring all of the different products — sales, service, community, commerce and marketing — into a single unified view of the customer. And they allow you to do this without actually writing any code, according to the company.

Adding a data source to Customer 360 Gif: Salesforce

This allows anyone who interacts with the customer to see the whole picture, a process that has eluded many companies and upset many customers. The customer record in Salesforce CRM is only part of the story, as is the marketing pitches and the ecommerce records. It all comes together to tell a story about that customer, but if the data is often trapped in silos, nobody can see that. That’s what Customer 360 is supposed to solve.

While Bret Taylor, Salesforce’s president and chief product officer says there were ways to make this happen before in Salesforce, they have never offered a product that does so in such a direct way. He says that the big brands like Apple, Amazon and Google have changed expectations in terms of how we presume to be treated when we connect with a brand. Customer 360 is focused on helping companies achieve that expectation level.

“Now, when people don’t get that experience, where the company that you’re interacting with doesn’t know who you are, it’s gone from a pleasant experience to an expectation, and that’s what we hear time and time again from our customers. And that’s why we’re so focused on integration, that single view of the customer is the ultimate value proposition of these experiences,” Taylor explained.

This product is aimed at the Salesforce admins who have been responsible in the past for configuring and customizing Salesforce products for the unique needs of each department or overall organization. They can configure the Customer 360 to pull data from Salesforce and other products too.

Customer 360 is being piloted in North America right now and should GA some time next year.

Sep
11
2018
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Twilio’s contact center products just got more analytical with Ytica acquisition

Twilio, a company best known for supplying a communications APIs for developers has a product called Twilio Flex for building sophisticated customer service applications on top of Twilio’s APIs. Today, it announced it was acquiring Ytica (pronounced Why-tica) to provide an operational and analytical layer on top of the customer service solution.

The companies would not discuss the purchase price, but Twilio indicated it does not expect the acquisition to have a material impact on its “results, operations or financial condition.” In other words, it probably didn’t cost much.

Ytica, which is based in Prague, has actually been a partner with Twilio for some time, so coming together in this fashion really made a lot of sense, especially as Twilio has been developing Flex.

Twilio Flex is an app platform for contact centers, which offers a full stack of applications and allows users to deliver customer support over multiple channels, Al Cook, general manager of Twilio Flex explained. “Flex deploys like SaaS, but because it’s built on top of APIs, you can reach in and change how Flex works,” he said. That is very appealing, especially for larger operations looking for a flexible, cloud-based solution without the baggage of on-prem legacy products.

What the product was lacking, however, was a native way to manage customer service representatives from within the application, and understand through analytics and dashboards, how well or poorly the team was doing. Having that ability to measure the effectiveness of the team becomes even more critical the larger the group becomes, and Cook indicated some Flex users are managing enormous groups with 10,000-20,000 employees.

Ytica provides a way to measure the performance of customer service staff, allowing management to monitor and intervene and coach when necessary. “It made so much sense to join together as one team. They have huge experience in the contact center, and a similar philosophy to build something customizable and programmable in the cloud,” Cook said.

While Ytica works with other vendors beyond Twilio, CEO Simon Vostrý says that they will continue to support those customers, even as they join the Twilio family. “We can run Flex and can continue to run this separately. We have customers running on other SaaS platforms, and we will continue to support them,” he said.

The company will remain in Prague and become a Twilio satellite office. All 14 employees are expected to join the Twilio team and Cook says plans are already in the works to expand the Prague team.

Sep
10
2018
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Zendesk expands into CRM with Base acquisition

Zendesk has mostly confined itself to customer service scenarios, but it seems that’s not enough anymore. If you want to truly know the customer behind the interaction, you need a customer system of record to go with the customer service component. To fill that need, Zendesk announced it was acquiring Base, a startup that has raised over $50 million.

The companies did not share the purchase price, but Zendesk did report that the acquisition should not have a significant impact on revenue.

While Base might not be as well known as Salesforce, Microsoft or Oracle in the CRM game, it has created a sophisticated sales force automation platform, complete with its own artificial intelligence underpinnings. CEO Uzi Shmilovici claimed his company’s AI could compete with its more well-heeled competitors when it was released in 2016 to provide salespeople with meaningful prescriptive advice on how to be more successful.

Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane certainly sees the value of adding a company like Base to his platform. “We want to do for sales what Zendesk has already done for customer service: give salespeople tools built around them and the customers they serve,” he said in a statement.

If the core of customer data includes customer service, CRM and marketing, Base gives Zendesk one more of those missing components, says Brent Leary, owner at CRM Essentials, a firm that keeps close watch on this market.

“Zendesk has a great position in customer service, but now to strengthen their position with midmarket/enterprise customers looking for integrated platforms, Base adds a strong mobile sales force automation piece to their puzzle,” Leary told TechCrunch.

As he points out, we have seen HubSpot make a similar move with HubSpot Apps, while SugarCRM, which was recently sold to Accel-KKR, could be shopping too, with its new owner’s deeper pockets. “This is almost like a CRM enterprise software Hunger Games going on,” he joked. But he indicates that we should be expecting more consolidation here as these companies try to acquire missing pieces of their platforms to offer more complete solutions.

Matt Price, who previously had the title of senior vice president for product portfolio at Zendesk will lead the Base team moving forward.

Base was founded in 2009 and boasts more than 5,000 customers. It’s worth pointing out that Base was already available for sale in the company app marketplace, so there was some overlap here, but the company intends to try to move existing customers to Base, of course.

Zendesk has indicated it will continue to support all Base customers. In addition, Base’s 125 employees have been invited to join Zendesk, so there will be no blood-letting here.

Jul
23
2018
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Cogito scores $37M as AI-driven sentiment analysis biz grows

Cogito announced a $37 million Series C investment today led by Goldman Sachs Growth Equity. Previous investors Salesforce Ventures and OpenView also chipped in. Mark Midle of Goldman Sachs’ Merchant Banking Division, has joined Cogito’s Board of Directors

The company has raised over $64 million since it emerged from the MIT Human Dynamics Lab back in 2007 trying to use the artificial intelligence technology available at the time to understand sentiment and apply it in a business context.

While it took some time for the technology to catch up with the vision, and find the right use case, company CEO and founder Joshua Feast says today they are helping customer service representatives understand the sentiment and emotional context of the person on the line and give them behavioral cues on how to proceed.

“We sell software to very large software, premium brands with many thousands of people in contact centers. The purpose of our solution is to help provide a really wonderful service experience in moments of truth,” he explained. Anyone who deals with a large company’s customer service has likely felt there is sometimes a disconnect between the person on the phone and their ability to understand your predicament and solve your problem.

Cogito in action giving customer service reps real-time feedback.

He says using his company’s solution, which analyzes the contents of the call in real time, and provides relevant feedback, the goal is to not just complete the service call, but to leave the customer feeling good about the brand and the experience. Certainly a bad experience can have the opposite effect.

He wants to use technology to make the experience a more human interaction and he recognizes that as an organization grows, layers of business process make it harder for the customer service representative to convey that humanity. Feast believes that technology has helped create this problem and it can help solve it too.

While the company is not talking about valuation or specific revenue at this point, Feast reports that revenue has grown 3X over the last year. Among their customers are Humana and Metlife, two large insurance companies, each with thousands of customer service agents.

Cogito is based in downtown Boston with 117 employees at last count, and of course they hope to use the money to add on to that number and help scale this vision further.

“This is about scaling our organization to meet client’s needs. It’s also about deepening what we do. In a lot of ways, we are only scratching the surface [of the underlying technology] in terms of how we can use AI to support emotional connections and help organizations be more human,” Feast said.

May
09
2018
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ServiceNow chatbot builder helps automate common service requests

When it comes to making requests inside a company for new equipment or to learn about HR policies, it can be a frustrating experience for both sides of the equation. HR and IT are probably tired of answering the same questions. Employees are tired of calling a help desk for routine inquiries and waiting for answers. ServiceNow’s new bot-building technology is designed to alleviate that problem by providing a way to create an automated bot-driven process for routine requests.

The company claims that you can build these bots to provide end-to-end service. Meaning if you tell the bot you need a new phone, it can pull your records, understand what you currently have and order a new one all in the same interaction — and all within a common messaging interface such as Slack or Microsoft Teams.

It also works for customer service transactions to process routine customer inquiries without having to route them to a CSR to answer typical questions.

The new chatbot building tool called Virtual Agent, has been built into the ServiceNow Now platform and provides a way for developers to build conversational interfaces easily, says CJ Desai, chief product officer at ServiceNow. “[The Virtual Agent] enables our customers to develop a wide range of intelligent service conversations from a quick question to an entire business action through the messaging platform of their choice,” Desai said in a statement.

The announcement is part of a broader AI initiative on the part of ServiceNow, which purchased Parlo, a chatbot startup, just last week for an undisclosed amount of cash. The acquisition should help give ServiceNow more AI engineering talent and help them beef up their natural language processing (NLP) to further refine and improve their chatbot products moving forward, as the Parlo team and technology get incorporated into the ServiceNow platform.

The company claims that using these chatbots, customers can reduce call volume to help desks and customer service by 15-20 percent, using the standard argument that it should free humans to handle more difficult inquiries.

The company joins a slew of other platform players including Salesforce, IBM, Oracle, AWS, and others who are incorporating chatbot building technology into their platforms.

Apr
03
2018
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Zendesk hits $500M run rate, launches enterprise content management platform

Over the last several years, Zendesk has been making the transition from a company that caters mostly to small businesses to one with larger enterprise customers — and their revenue reflects that. The company announced it has crossed the $.5 billion annual run rate since its last earning report in February. It also announced a new enterprise content management product specifically geared for large customer service organizations.

The company was just shy of the goal after its most recent earnings report (pdf) with $123.4 million for the quarter. They say they have since passed that goal, but have not announced it until now, based on revenue that closed March 31, 2018. The company is projecting between $555 and $565 million in revenue for fiscal 2018, according to its last earnings report. When you consider that when the company went public in 2014, it was at $100 million in annual revenue, reaching a half billion dollars in 4 years is significant.

Zendesk reports that 40 percent of its revenue now comes from larger enterprise customers, which they define as 100 seats or more. The company is predicting it will cross the $1 billion run rate by some time in 2020.

“When we IPOed, our run rate was $100 million. We had great momentum, but we were seen as SMB scaling to mid market. To reach a half a billion dollars shows momentum for building up enterprise market and enterprise products,” Adrian McDermott, Zendesk’s president of products told TechCrunch.

As for the new product, it’s called Guide Enterprise and it’s designed to provide those larger customer service organizations with a knowledge base and a content management platform for editorial planning and review. The idea is to empower customer service reps to write up solutions to problems they encounter and build up that knowledge base as part of the natural act of doing their jobs.

Zendesk Guide Enterprise. Photo: Zendesk

That gives organizations a couple of advantages. First of all, the reps can find their fellow employees’ notes and not have to reinvent the wheel every time, and the notes and articles they write can pass through editorial review and become part of the permanent knowledge base.

When customers hit the site or app, they can access solutions to common problems before having to talk to a human. The platform also includes reminders to check the content regularly so the knowledge base stays fresh and stale content is removed.

Finally, the company is applying AI to the problem. The artificial intelligence component can review the corpus of information currently available in the entire knowledge base and identify gaps in content that the company might want to add, allowing for proactive content creation.

The content management idea isn’t new to Zendesk. McDermott says they shipped the first content management product years ago, but what’s different is that this is geared to larger organizations and that the AI piece allows for some automation of this process. “The new workflow brings rich AI concepts like content analytics into the publishing flow,” he said.

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