May
20
2020
--

Directly, which taps experts to train chatbots, raises $11M, closes out Series B at $51M

Directly, a startup whose mission is to help build better customer service chatbots by using experts in specific areas to train them, has raised more funding as it opens up a new front to grow its business: APIs and a partner ecosystem that can now also tap into its expert network. Today Directly is announcing that it has added $11 million to close out its Series B at $51 million (it raised $20 million back in January of this year, and another $20 million as part of the Series B back in 2018).

The funding is coming from Triangle Peak Partners and Toba Capital, while its previous investors in the round included strategic backers Samsung NEXT and Microsoft’s M12 Ventures (who are both customers, alongside companies like Airbnb), as well as Industry Ventures, True Ventures, Costanoa Ventures and Northgate. (As we reported when covering the initial close, Directly’s valuation at that time was at $110 million post-money, and so this would likely put it at $120 million or higher, given how the business has expanded.)

While chatbots have now been around for years, a key focus in the tech world has been how to help them work better, after initial efforts saw so many disappointing results that it was fair to ask whether they were even worth the trouble.

Directly’s premise is that the most important part of getting a chatbot to work well is to make sure that it’s trained correctly, and its approach to that is very practical: find experts both to troubleshoot questions and provide answers.

As we’ve described before, its platform helps businesses identify and reach out to “experts” in the business or product in question, collect knowledge from them, and then fold that into a company’s AI to help train it and answer questions more accurately. It also looks at data input and output into those AI systems to figure out what is working, and what is not, and how to fix that, too.

The information is typically collected by way of question-and-answer sessions. Directly compensates experts both for submitting information as well as to pay out royalties when their knowledge has been put to use, “just as you would in traditional copyright licensing in music,” its co-founder Antony Brydon explained to me earlier this year.

It can take as little as 100 experts, but potentially many more, to train a system, depending on how much the information needs to be updated over time. (Directly’s work for Xbox, for example, used 1,000 experts but has to date answered millions of questions.)

Directly’s pitch to customers is that building a better chatbot can help deflect more questions from actual live agents (and subsequently cut operational costs for a business). It claims that customer contacts can be reduced by up to 80%, with customer satisfaction by up to 20%, as a result.

What’s interesting is that now Directly sees an opportunity in expanding that expert ecosystem to a wider group of partners, some of which might have previously been seen as competitors. (Not unlike Amazon’s AI powering a multitude of other businesses, some of which might also be in the market of selling the same services that Amazon does).

The partner ecosystem, as Directly calls it, use APIs to link into Directly’s platform. Meya, Percept.ai, and SmartAction — which themselves provide a range of customer service automation tools — are three of the first users.

“The team at Directly have quickly proven to be trusted and invaluable partners,” said Erik Kalviainen, CEO at Meya, in a statement. “As a result of our collaboration, Meya is now able to take advantage of a whole new set of capabilities that will enable us to deliver automated solutions both faster and with higher resolution rates, without customers needing to deploy significant internal resources. That’s a powerful advantage at a time when scale and efficiency are key to any successful customer support operation.”

The prospect of a bigger business funnel beyond even what Directly was pulling in itself is likely what attracted the most recent investment.

“Directly has established itself as a true leader in helping customers thrive during these turbulent economic times,” said Tyler Peterson, Partner at Triangle Peak Partners, in a statement. “There is little doubt that automation will play a tremendous role in the future of customer support, but Directly is realizing that potential today. Their platform enables businesses to strike just the right balance between automation and human support, helping them adopt AI-powered solutions in a way that is practical, accessible, and demonstrably effective.”

In January, Mike de la Cruz, who took over as CEO at the time of the funding announcement, said the company was gearing up for a larger Series C in 2021. It’s not clear how and if that will be impacted by the current state of the world. But in the meantime, as more organizations are looking for ways to connect with customers outside of channels that might require people to physically visit stores, or for employees to sit in call centres, it presents a huge opportunity for companies like this one.

“At its core, our business is about helping customer support leaders resolve customer issues with the right mix of automation and human support,” said de la Cruz in a statement. “It’s one thing to deliver a great product today, but we’re committed to ensuring that our customers have the solutions they need over the long term. That means constantly investing in our platform and expanding our capabilities, so that we can keep up with the rapid pace of technological change and an unpredictable economic landscape. These new partnerships and this latest expansion of our recent funding round have positioned us to do just that. We’re excited to be collaborating with our new partners, and very thankful to all of our investors for their support.”

Dec
27
2019
--

Revenue train kept rolling all year long for Salesforce

Salesforce turned 20 this year, and the most successful pure enterprise SaaS company ever showed no signs of slowing down. Consider that the company finished the year on an $18 billion run rate, rushing toward its 2022 revenue goal of $20 billion. Oh, and it also spent a tidy $15.7 billion to buy Tableau this year in the most high-profile and expensive acquisition it’s ever made.

Co-founder, chairman and CEO Marc Benioff published a book called Trailblazer about running a socially responsible company, and made the rounds promoting it. In fact, he even stopped by TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco in September, telling the audience that capitalism as we know it is dead. Still, the company announced it was building two more towers in Sydney and Dublin.

It also promoted Bret Taylor earlier this month, who could be in line as heir apparent to Benioff and co-CEO Keith Block whenever they decide to retire. The company closed the year with a bang with a $4.5 billion quarter. Salesforce, for the most part, has somehow been able to balance Benioff’s vision of responsible capitalism while building a company makes money in bunches, one that continues to grow and flourish, and that’s showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

All aboard the gravy train

The company just keeps churning out good quarters. Here’s what this year looked like:

Sep
21
2019
--

Facebook has acquired Servicefriend, which builds ‘hybrid’ chatbots, for Calibra customer service

As Facebook prepares to launch its new cryptocurrency Libra in 2020, it’s putting the pieces in place to help it run. In one of the latest developments, it has acquired Servicefriend, a startup that built bots — chat clients for messaging apps based on artificial intelligence — to help customer service teams, TechCrunch has confirmed.

The news was first reported in Israel, where Servicefriend is based, after one of its investors, Roberto Singler, alerted local publication The Marker about the deal. We reached out to Ido Arad, one of the co-founders of the company, who referred our questions to a team at Facebook. Facebook then confirmed the acquisition with an Apple-like non-specific statement:

“We acquire smaller tech companies from time to time. We don’t always discuss our plans,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Several people, including Arad, his co-founder Shahar Ben Ami, and at least one other indicate that they now work at Facebook within the Calibra digital wallet group on their LinkedIn profiles. Their jobs at the social network started this month, meaning this acquisition closed in recent weeks. (Several others indicate that they are still at Servicefriend, meaning they too may have likely made the move as well.)

Although Facebook isn’t specifying what they will be working on, the most obvious area will be in building a bot — or more likely, a network of bots — for the customer service layer for the Calibra digital wallet that Facebook is developing.

Facebook’s plan is to build a range of financial services for people to use Calibra to pay out and receive Libra — for example, to send money to contacts, pay bills, top up their phones, buy things and more.

It remains to be seen just how much people will trust Facebook as a provider of all these. So that is where having “human” and accessible customer service experience will be essential.

“We are here for you,” Calibra notes on its welcome page, where it promises 24-7 support in WhatsApp and Messenger for its users.

Screenshot 2019 09 21 at 23.25.18

Servicefriend has worked on Facebook’s platform in the past: specifically it built “hybrid” bots for Messenger for companies to use to complement teams of humans, to better scale their services on messaging platforms. In one Messenger bot that Servicefriend built for Globe Telecom in the Philippines, it noted that the hybrid bot was able to bring the “agent hours” down to under 20 hours for each 1,000 customer interactions.

Bots have been a relatively problematic area for Facebook. The company launched a personal assistant called M in 2015, and then bots that let users talk to businesses in 2016 on Messenger, with quite some fanfare, although the reality was that nothing really worked as well as promised, and in some cases worked significantly worse than whatever services they aimed to replace.

While AI-based assistants such as Alexa have become synonymous with how a computer can carry on a conversation and provide information to humans, the consensus around bots these days is that the most workable way forward is to build services that complement, rather than completely replace, teams.

For Facebook, getting its customer service on Calibra right can help it build and expand its credibility (note: another area where Servicefriend has build services is in using customer service as a marketing channel). Getting it wrong could mean issues not just with customers, but with partners and possibly regulators.

Sep
05
2019
--

Battlefield winner Forethought adds tool to automate support ticket routing

Last year at this time, Forethought won the TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield competition. A $9 million Series A investment followed last December. Today at TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise in San Francisco, the company introduced the latest addition to its platform, called Agatha Predictions.

Forethought CEO and co-founder Deon Nicholas said that after launching its original product, Agatha Answers (to provide suggested answers to customer queries), customers were asking for help with the routing part of the process, as well. “We learned that there’s a whole front end of that problem before the ticket even gets to the agent,” he said. Forethought developed Agatha Predictions to help sort the tickets and get them to the most qualified agent to solve the problem.

“It’s effectively an entire tool that helps triage and route tickets. So when a ticket is coming in, it can predict whether it’s a high-priority or low-priority ticket and which agent is best qualified to handle this question. And this all happens before the agent even touches the ticket. This really helps drive efficiencies across the organization by helping to reduce triage time,” Nicholas explained.

The original product (Agatha Answers) is designed to help agents get answers more quickly and reduce the amount of time it takes to resolve an issue. “It’s a tool that integrates into your Help Desk software, indexes your past support tickets, knowledge base articles and other [related content]. Then we give agents suggested answers to help them close questions with reduced handle time,” Nicholas said.

He says that Agatha Predictions is based on the same underlying AI engine as Agatha Answers. Both use Natural Language Understanding (NLU) developed by the company. “We’ve been building out our product, and the Natural Language Understanding engine, the engine behind the system, works in a very similar manner [across our products]. So as a ticket comes in the AI reads it, understands what the customer is asking about, and understands the semantics, the words being used,” he explained. This enables them to automate the routing and supply a likely answer for the issue involved.

Nicholas maintains that winning Battlefield gave his company a jump start and a certain legitimacy it lacked as an early-stage startup. Lots of customers came knocking after the event, as did investors. The company has grown from five employees when it launched last year at TechCrunch Disrupt to 20 today.

Apr
10
2019
--

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
--

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
--

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
--

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
--

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
--

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.

Powered by WordPress | Theme: Aeros 2.0 by TheBuckmaker.com