Brian Riggs
Brian is a member of Ovum's Enterprise team, tracking emerging trends, technologies, and market dynamics in the unified communications and...
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Brian Riggs | June 23, 2013 |


IBM Pulls Up a Seat For Itself at the Contact Center Table

IBM Pulls Up a Seat For Itself at the Contact Center Table The company's Watson supercomputer is on the case--but it's unclear when something will come to market.

The company's Watson supercomputer is on the case--but it's unclear when something will come to market.

Press releases announcing some new technology or product or service that's going to "revolutionize customer service" are so common that my eyes glaze and my mind numbs when I see the three words together in a single sentence. Considerably less common is IBM making customer supporty, contact centery announcements of any kind.

IBM, after all, has no seat at this particular table. It has no contact center platform like Genesys or Avaya. It hasn't bought its way into the CRM market like Oracle. It hasn't integrated its UC software with third-party contact center systems like Microsoft. And it hasn't extended its cloud ambitions into a CRM market that's clearly amenable to cloud-based services.

Yet announcing a new technology that could in fact revolutionize customer support is precisely what IBM did last month. We're talking, of course, about Watson. Not Thomas Watson, the eternally misquoted "autocrat of computing" who made the early IBM as much cult as company, but rather the software system that (eerily if you ask me) is named after him. There's no end of articles about Watson Engagement Advisor, which you can find here, here, and here...and which does not, as the name might lead you to believe, provide guidance on when amorous young couples should first exchange rings.

Engagement Advisor, rather, is an iteration of the supercomputer-in-a-box that wiped Alex Trebek's floor with a Ken Jennings-shaped mop. But instead of being stuffed with a broad set of miscellanea useful mainly in cocktail party chit-chat and the Daily Double, this version--or rather versions since there will apparently be several--of Watson will draw on a deep set of info that provides bank customers with financial advice, marketing agencies with better ways of reaching consumers, and me with something that maybe can troubleshoot my haywire Tivo box. (Because, Tivo, it's great how quickly a live agent answers my calls, but I'd prefer an automated one if it can actually solve the problem I've been calling about over and over.)

With Engagement Advisor, IBM taps into trends guaranteed to perk up many an ear in the contact center and customer support space. These include:

* Cloud--Watson Engagement Advisor will be "delivered through cloud-delivered services."
* Mobility--Engagement Advisor can "sit directly in the hands of consumers via mobile device," providing information to end users "through...a mobile push alert."
* Multi-channel--It "offers help to customers via any channel."
* Big data--It has a "unique capacity to uncover insights from Big Data by simply posing a question in natural language." (Big data and natural language in the same sentence...a buzzword bingo two-fer!)

(All quotes are from the Engagement Advisor press release.)

Tangent into Healthcare
It's interesting to note that this is not the first time IBM has planned to productize Watson for an industry buried in data. "Doctors and nurses" it turns out"are drowning in information with new research, genetic data, treatments and procedures popping up daily. They often don't know what to do, and" (switching my sources here) "[o]ne in five diagnoses are incorrect or incomplete and nearly 1.5 million medication errors are made in the US every year."

First off...and let me express this next sentiment in as calm and composed a manner as I possibly can...


One in five? I'm no math genius, but that's almost 20%! And Watson will let doctors do their jobs right...what? time out of four? Three? Regardless, turn Watson loose on them before I ask my primary whether a head cold or esophageal cancer is giving me this gravelly voice.

But there's no hope for that, at least not now. In 2011 IBM announced Watson "knew" as much as a second-year med student. In 2012 IBM and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center said they were working on a version of Watson that would help doctors correctly diagnose cancer, presumably more than 20% of the time. A year later and Watson's Trapper John incarnation remains in development. Not surprising given that IBM and Sloan-Kettering said they're shooting to deliver Watson-as-a-service by late 2013.

The point is that if all goes according to plan it will have been more than three years before IBM marketing machine flipped the hype switch on Watson-as-diagnostician to something approaching productization.

Given--and here ends the tangent as we get back to the topic of customer service--that IBM just flipped a similar switch on Watson-as-customer-support-agent, it will likely be a number of years before we see it productized in any meaningful way.

It's just as well that Engagement Advisor will take a while to reach the market because I get the impression that IBM's plans for it are still rather unfocused. I mean, it's presented as either assisting contact center agents or replacing them. It will either respond to customers' emails or chat with them on their mobile phones via a voice interface. Companies like ANZ and Nielsen will either buy it or they'll rent it out to others. Engagement Advisor is either intended for customer support environments or it's to be used "with broader commerce and IBM digital marketing-driven solutions like Tealeaf, Unica, and Coremetrics."

In some ways it feels like IBM is throwing Engagement Advisor against the customer support wall and is waiting to see what sticks.

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