Exploring How to AI-Enable IVR for the Contact Center
While preparing for my upcoming Enterprise Connect 2019 session, “What It Really Takes to Put AI to Work in Your Contact Center,” I happened upon a small innovative company called Inference Solutions. I was intrigued because some well-known brands use Inference technology, yet the company is somewhat enigmatic -- unknown to me until it reached out and told me how it’s changing the way contact centers work.
Who Is Inference Solutions?
Inference offers a platform for creating intelligent virtual agents (IVAs), sometimes called chatbots or intelligent bots. The founders, who came out of Telstra Research Labs, started Inference in 2005. The company’s initial focus was on developing self-service speech applications centered around complex dialog models. These models were difficult to construct by hand, but their creation could be automated using “grammatical inference,” a technique that takes spoken conversations in any language and builds a model using speech-to-text and natural language processing (NLP). The word “Inference” in the company’s name was derived from this concept of grammatical inference.
Between 2005 and 2012, Inference provided consulting services that created these models for large telecommunications companies, organizations, and enterprises, including the Australian Post, Pizza Hut, and United Healthcare. However, even with Inference’s automation techniques, crafting these models remained difficult, expensive, and complicated.
In 2013, Inference re-evaluated its strategy and philosophy, focusing on how to make speech applications and other human interaction technology easier to use by anyone. With the emergence of software-as-a-service platforms, the company believed it could create a SaaS-based offering to abstract the technical complexity so that organizations of any size could easily use technology for automating and simplifying human interactions.
The result is a cloud-based service that allows organizations to create IVAs with the aim of offloading many mundane tasks from live agents, as a way either to augment or replace them. The company seems to be onto something given that name brands including Marriott, McDonald’s, Toshiba, Toyota, KPMG, Virgin Australia, and Kroger use its technology.
What Is an IVA?
IVAs and human contact center agents are similar in that both have skills and the ability to do things. Like live agents, virtual agents can be “hired” and “trained” (programmed) to have different skill sets based on business needs. Examples of IVA skills include the ability to understand human speech in more than 100 languages, respond using text-to-speech, detect DTMF tones, authenticate using biometric voice techniques, provide IVR, and do tone analysis. An Inference partner will typically configure several IVAs, each with a different combination of skills. For example, a basic IVA may have the skill to use touch-tones for simple interactive voice response applications while a more advanced IVA might incorporate machine learning, NLP, and speech synthesis.
Unlike with human agents, a contact center can easily scale the number of IVAs with a given skill set up or down as the business requires.
IVAs can do all sorts of tasks to care for customers. They can authenticate callers using voice, make appointments, reset passwords, look up orders, take payments, survey customers, and answer all kinds of questions -- all in an omnichannel, phone, Web, text, or SMS environment.
IVAs function like an outsourced contact center in that an organization purchases IVA services and pays to use them for as long as needed.
The key to making all these capabilities work seamlessly together and easy to use is Inference Studio, a technology abstraction platform. Like some other IVR tools, Studio provides a graphical user interface that allows customers to create tasks using the IVA’s skills with little or no programming. Because Studio has built-in interfaces to advanced third-party NLP capabilities from Google, IBM, Nuance, and others, customers can use Studio to readily build speech applications that have historically required extensive development and/or professional services work.
A simple intelligent virtual agent, created in Inference Studio, that automates the customer service tasks of collecting payments and reporting outages.
Studio has a library of prepackaged tasks that can help you accomplish your business activities using the skills in the IVA you’ve purchased. Task examples include (among many more):
- Appointment Maker -- a bot that allows callers to make and change appointments
- Appointment Reminder -- a bot that reminds people of appointments and that will interface with Appointment Maker if a change needs to be made
- Collections -- follows up on outstanding accounts
- Inbound Ticketing -- a service desk application that allows users to create problem tickets automatically
- Order Lookup -- a bot that allows users to check on order status
- Password Reset -- a bot that lets users authenticate and then change their system passwords
- Service Activation -- lets a person know when a new service has been activated
- Smart Attendant -- provides a personal interaction to recognized customers; integrates with speech recognition, text-to-speech, location services, preferences, and historical data
- Survey -- automatically sends surveys, receives responses, and tabulates data
- Teleclock -- a time-tracking application enabling employees to clock in and out
IVAs can operate across different inbound and outbound channels, including text chat, SMS, Web chat, and voice. For skills that require voice interaction with callers, IVA creators can choose different voice genders in instances where it may be more effective to use a woman’s voice or a man’s voice.
For doing data dips, scheduling, processing, and bill payments, IVAs can interface with third-party apps via APIs. Inference has created APIs for a number of applications including:
- CRM -- Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics 365, Copper (for Google)
- SMS -- Nexmo, Twilio
- Payment gateways -- Merchant Warrior, eWAY Payments, Fat Zebra, Authorize.net (U.S. only), Worldpay, Pay Trace, First Data (Pay Ezeey), Westpac PayWay
- Scheduling -- Google Calendar, Acuity Scheduling
In addition, users can create their own middleware to add custom data integrations.
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