Intelligent Assistants Bring Changes to CRM and Customer Service

NEW YORK — MyWave Founder and CEO Geraldine McBride thinks the current customer relationship management (CRM) approach used by most businesses is outdated and will ultimately be rejected by consumers who no longer consider themselves passive participants at the end of the sales cycle.

"CRM will be replaced by customer-managed relationship (CMR) technology," McBride told attendees at Opus Research's Intelligent Assistants Conference yesterday. "The CRM approach, where the brand controls the customer relationship, is an old-fashioned model that is naïve in today's environment, where consumers are educated and empowered with ubiquitous Internet access."

McBride expects that in this environment, intelligent assistants will become commonplace, with consumers gravitating to them to manage their shopping and information-gathering experiences. 

"I need an intelligent assistant to help me in the course of my daily life," she said.

Intelligent assistants, she added, will eventually replace Web browsers, but first, data security issues have to be addressed.

"Consumers flatly reject the idea that intelligent assistants should be able to gather and share personal information without their approval," she said. "Ultimately, consumers will decide how and when to share their personal data with brands." 

McBride also thinks that intelligent assistants will need to be capable of greater personalization, which was the motivation for her to found MyWave in 2013.

MyWave offers an intelligent assistant named Frank that McBride said can "hyper-personalize" the customer-brand relationship. Frank allows consumers to control and update their own data, based on their preferences and buying intentions, and share their preferences and needs in real time so businesses can better tailor products and services to them.

Dan Miller, founder and lead analyst at Opus Research, agrees that personalization is a key area of development for intelligent assistant vcndors, which now number about 70. Among the vendors are makers not only of speech technologies but also of artificial intelligence, machine learning, analytics, and even biometrics technologies.

"The industry is attracting a lot of new companies," he said, "and we expect to see more and more companies entering the market at an accelerated rate."

Opus Research predicts that the annual enterprise spending on intelligent assistant technology in North America alone will surpass $1 billion by 2020. 

Another analyst firm, Transparency Market Research, expects even more robust market penetration. It forecasts the global market for intelligent virtual assistants to reach $5.1 billion by 2022, up from $579.7 million in 2014, at a compounded annual growth rate of 31.8 percent.

Along with all of that growth, the market has changed “exponentially” as it has matured, according to Miller.

"We started with some computer resources that had limited [question-and-answer] capabilities," he said. "The early products were glorified FAQs, where you asked a question and it found the answer."

Today, however, "we're seeing apps that operate more dynamically, capable of handling unstructured data and user-provided information," he adds.

If the market continues on its current trajectory, Miller expects that demand will also be high for what he calls "personal advisors," especially in healthcare, retail, and travel. Miller also expects to see a greater reliance on employee assistant apps to manage things like calendars and appointments.

And still, while many of the current virtual assistants are centered around mobile devices and consumer applications, there are some real business use cases as well, panelists during an afternoon session contended.

"People are digital, so it make sense for companies to meet their customers where they are,” said David Lloyd, president of IntelliResponse, which was acquired by [24]7 in November 2014. 

At Nuance Communications, which launched its Nina virtual assistant app in 2012, a main focus of development has been in creating virtual agents that can mimic what live human agents do today, according to Tony Lorentzen, general manager of Nuance on Demand. In that context, the company is taking Nina not only to mobile devices, but also to the Web and interactive voice response systems, he said.

But Tobias Goebel, director of engineering at Aspect Software, pointed out that agents are not likely to be replaced by virtual assistants anytime soon. "Agents will never go away," he stated. "Their roles will be elevated as they handle more complex tasks."

Most of the panelists agreed, but also stressed that with innovations like machine learning, intelligent assistants will also be able to handle more complex tasks. This will be a challenge for the developers of this technology, said Nick Gyles, chief technology officer at WDS, a contact center outsourcer acquired by Xerox in 2012.

"Customer interactions and conversations are becoming more complex," added Phil Gray, executive vice president of business development at Interactions. "As an industry, we have to get more intelligence built into our intelligent assistants. There's a whole layer that we're just starting to get at with machine learning. We're just at the tip of the iceberg with what [machine learning] will enable assistants to do."

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