Explained: How AI is revolutionising the way customer service is executed

Nearly everyone has gone through the vexing experience of waiting for a long time to speak to a customer service executive. And even when one’s turn comes, there is no guarantee that the query or the problem will be resolved. But this may change soon, thanks to the amalgamation of text and speech-based chat bots powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics.

Take the example of United Airlines. When you talk to the speech or chat bot on its customer service line, the system already knows who you are. It knows if you are about to commence a travel or have just finished one. If you call on the day of travel, the system is intelligent enough to discern that you probably want to cancel the ticket or change the date of journey. In other words, you do not have to answer a volley of questions and give details such as name, location, ticket identification number and so on. 

The AI-enabled system predicts your move based on historical data, says PV Kannan, co-founder of [24]7.ai, a San Jose-based company, which is at the vanguard of transforming customer experience through AI.

With the help of its proprietary technologies in areas like speech bots, chat bots and human interface, [24]7.ai is driving the way customer experience can be delivered seamlessly on different platforms without even letting the caller know if they are engaging with a chat bot or a human.

In his book titled The Age of Intent, Kannan, a chartered accountant who co-founded [24]7.ai with techie Shanmugam Nagarajan, has touched upon some of the ways in which AI is revolutionising customer service across enterprises. “The reason (why) I wrote this book is, there is a lot of misconception that AI is going to kill all jobs or that AI is all hype,” says Kannan, who has given insights into the applications of AI and predictive analytics in the book. 

This lies at the core of [24]7.ai, although it was born as a business process outsourcing (BPO) company back in 2000. During the course of its journey, the company, which was called 24/7 Customer then, transformed itself into an artificial intelligence software company called [24]7.ai.

In 1995, Kannan and Nagarajan started Business Evolution, said to be the first customer service platform that provided a ‘chat’ application. In 1999, they sold the business to Kana Software for $140 million in a stock deal. A year after, the duo once again joined hands to launch their second venture, 24/7 Customer, though they knew that a plain vanilla BPO services space would not hold them for long.

“As a company, we are passionate about making customer service delightful. Though we are a B2B company, we are one of those rare companies to have such passion,” says Kannan, who met Nagarajan when both were working at Tata Consultancy Services in the 1990s.

Even as a BPO player, [24]7 used to operate with a strong focus on R&D, housing a team of researchers and PhD holders in areas like mathematics, statistics, natural language processing, text mining and machine learning. It is not surprising, therefore, that the California-based firm, which has its main centre located in Bengaluru, boasts of a portfolio of 135 patents, while another 200-odd are in the pipeline.

The company has also embarked on a major expansion drive through acquisitions. The acquisitions, seven so far, were not intended to expand the company’s geographic footprint or client base, but to acquire new technological capabilities.

PV Kannan (left) co-founded [24]7.ai with Shanmugam Nagarajan (right) in 2000
In 2012, the company acquired Voxify, which was building automated call centre agents. The watershed moment came later that year when it acquired “Tellme Networks” from technology giant Microsoft and also absorbed 150 techies as part of the deal. “The deal was instrumental in making this pivot (into new age technologies). Microsoft holds a minority stake in our company,” Nagarajan says.

Thereafter, the company acquired IntelliResponse, a Canadian firm specialising in self-service technologies and virtual agent solutions. This was followed by Campanja, a search engine bidding platform, in 2015, and EngageClick, a content personalisation firm, in 2016. Interestingly, the company has not tapped any external funding since 2003 when Sequoia invested $22 million for a minority stake. Both Sequoia, and another backer, Ram Shriram, a founding member and early investor in tech giant Google, continue to stay invested in [24]7.ai.

With marquee clients like Hilton, AT&T, Citi, Best Buy, American Express and eBay among others, [24]7.ai is preparing to cash in on future opportunities. Its competitors include Alorica, Mixpanel and Genesys. But with the rising adoption of AI by enterprises, [24]7.ai is confident about taking on competition and emerging on top.

“Today’s customer doesn’t have any patience. So AI is the future,” concludes Kannan.

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