Afiniti CEO: Serial Entrepreneur Tackles AI

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are all the rage. Last week, one of the many companies applying the technology to customer experience, Afiniti, was center stage (literally and figuratively) for not one but two contact center solution providers whose customer bases include some of the largest companies in the world.

As Brent Kelly, of KelCor, covered in a No Jitter post on Tuesday, April 24, Avaya forged a strategic partnership with Afiniti, which had already been one of its A.I.Connect development partners. The very morning that press release hit, I was sitting in Las Vegas at Aspect Customer Experience (ACE), the company's annual user event, waiting to hear the CEO of Afiniti, Zia Chishti. As the only platinum sponsor of Aspect ACE, Chishti was given the typical just-before-lunch speaking slot. He did anything but deliver a run-of-the-mill sponsorship pitch.

Chishti opened by asking the 650+ audience to rise. He performed a hand-clapping sequence, and then asked the audience to repeat it. And then repeat it again. And then one more time. We observed that the first time the audience tried to repeat the sequence, there was a lot of variability. We got tighter the second time, and by the third time, we were acting in unison.

That process of pattern discovery we had just performed was AI, Chishti explained. The people in the room were "little computational units, spinning away, trying to recognize what I'm doing up here on stage," he added.

We repeated the pattern in three iterations, but a machine today would probably take 3,000 or 30,000 iterations to get to approximately the same point, Chishti said. The takeaway from that little exercise, he said, is that AI is nothing more than the process of pattern recognition that we do in our day-to-day lives.

Chishti did more than orchestrate a very relatable AI demo. He got the audience's attention, and he kept it by describing his personal and business history... undergraduate degree from Columbia University, three years at Morgan Stanley as a financial analyst, and then an MBA from Stanford. From there, in 1997, he founded Align Technology, makers of Invisalign braces, transforming an industry while creating a firm with a market cap of $22 billion. In 2002, he founded TRG, an investment holding company specializing in the business process outsourcing sector. That company is now worth $2 billion, Chishti said.

Afiniti CEO Zia Chishti speaking at the Aspect Customer Experience conference

Which brings us to Afiniti, which makes behavioral-pairing technology to match contact center agents with customers. During an interview, Afiniti CMO Chris Farmer explained that Afiniti was registered as a company in 2006, but "focused on development of the algorithm rather than going to market immediately." Understandably, the initial AI was rudimentary, he said, but it has improved exponentially in the intervening years.

Afiniti had its first client in 2009 and its first major success with T-Mobile (an Avaya customer) in 2014. Today its customers number fewer than 50, Farmer shared. While that may sound low, Afiniti revenues are north of $100 million. As Chishti told me, Afiniti isn't a solution for every contact center -- he's targeting the top 500 companies.

AI is going to dramatically change the customer service world, Chishti said during his Aspect ACE keynote.

But, he said, he believes we're only at the inception of a 10-year process. "A lightbulb goes off, and generally it's very slow. First one person gets it, then two, then 10, then 100. Fast-forward five years, and everyone gets it. It becomes the de facto standard."

Ten years may even be a bit optimistic to get AI technology broadly deployed across customer experience software. But Chishti's predicted trajectory of the market is certainly supported by other market activity: Genesys acquiring Altocloud and building Kate; Avaya and Aspect partnering with Afiniti; and, also just last week, NICE announcing its acquisition of Mattersight, which provides cloud-based analytics for contact centers.

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