AI, Cloud and the Future of Contact Centers

16 Apr 2020

In this Executive Insights podcast, BCStrategies' Jim Burton welcomes Frank Tersigni, EVP and Chief Customer Officer at Altivon. As a Genesys Gold Partner systems integrator, Frank defines Altivon's role as "to help our customers deploy and evolve their customer contact center solutions." Discussion topics include the cloud and contact centers, the effect of COVID-19 on contact centers, WFH, trends that are moving the industry such as AI and analytics, and the way Altivon looks at each.


Jim Burton: Welcome to BCStrategies Executive Insights. This is Jim Burton and I'm joined today by Frank Tersigni, EVP and Chief Customer Officer at Altivon.

Frank, thank you for joining us today. Could we start off with a little bit of background about Altivon, and a little bit of background about your responsibilities at Altivon?

Frank Tersigni: Certainly, Jim, and thank you for asking me on the BCStrategies call today. I'm Chief Customer Officer at Altivon. We are a 30-year-old systems integration company. It started in Phoenix, Arizona, we now operate across North America. We are essentially focused 100 percent on the contact center, and associated technology space. We've been that way since the beginning. Our role is to help our customers deploy and evolve their customer contact center solutions. A hundred percent based on, currently, Genesys technology, that has been our focus for the last 10 or so years.

We've decided that the only way we can truly deliver the value that our customers are looking for is to focus on one platform. We believe we've chosen the very best there is. That's who we are, and our customers range from small, 10- and 20-agent deployment to as large as 4,000 across a number of states, and we have everything in between.

Jim: Great, thanks for that. We're in a situation right now with COVID-19 and its challenges. We know that contact centers are going through some changes in dealing with that. Tell us what you're seeing from your customers and how you're responding to those customers.

Frank: Yeah, thanks, Jim. It's certainly to echo your comments around the difficulty in the unprecedented situation we're dealing with COVID-19, and first off, our thoughts go out to all of the healthcare workers who are doing heroic work on the frontlines of this effort.

Our priority as an organization is to make sure that our staff is safe and sound, and our customers are able to deal with their requirements as best they can. We've always said the reason we focus only on contact centers is we believe it's one of the most important and critical functions within an enterprise because it deals firsthand and directly with customers. Never has that been truer and more important than today. We've been spending a lot of time working with our customers to help them mobilize on, kind of, two different fronts.

I call it two different baskets of activity. The first is to help our customers get their agents, if they're not already, to get them remote, and to facilitate that effort as best we can.

Then, I have to say I'm really proud of our industry at large. I mean, I think, not just Genesys, but virtually all of the major vendors in our space are stepping up to the plate, offering free interim licensing, we're offering free services to help our customers get remote; and doing everything we can as an industry to help our customers make sure that they can continue to serve their customers. It's a really positive, kind of, feel good story from that perspective.

The second big thing we're seeing is some of our customers in certain industries have a surge of demand, right? I mean, it goes beyond what they were already set up for from a maximum capacity perspective.

We're seeing a kind of a second tier of engagement, where we're setting up brand new, cloud deployments for customers to simply handle additional demand. Whether it be information-based messaging, or whether it's some call diversion, or call containment-kinds of self-service functions that we can do without agent involvement to help them deal with the additional demand that they're seeing. Again, Genesys and others have stepped up to the table. We're able to get things deployed in, literally, 48 hours on a no-charge basis for customers in the cloud.

An example I just heard yesterday was city of Helsinki wanted to set up an information line for dealing with their population that's over 70 years old. They were able to get that done, literally, in about eight hours, and up and running, and taking calls.

It's an astonishing response, and so I'm happy to say the industry has stepped up in helping people deal with it.

Jim: We had a podcast, I think it was about a week ago, talking about what's happening in our industry. I remember starting off the discussion and mentioning that we are very fortunate that we're at a time where the technology could make such a big difference and really help.

Frank: Indeed.

Jim: I've talked to a number of people, and of course, they're all working from home. One of the things that's kind of interesting about that is that some people say, "I never thought about what it'd be like to work at home, but it's really working for me."

I've also talked to other people who say that, "I could never work from home This will never work for me." But, I'm kind of curious from the contact center's standpoint, what kind of changes do you think this is going to impact? What do you think is going to happen with the contact center industry based on what we're experiencing right now?

Frank: That's a good question, Jim. I think there are a couple of natural outcomes that we'll see. While it's still pretty early days, I think there is going to be a growing recognition, like you say, that working from home will certainly become a much more acceptable norm for many organizations.

We as an organization at Altivon, it's interesting. We've been virtual, entirely virtual as a company for about a decade. We made a decision to close our brick and mortar offices about 10 years ago.

That’s allowed us to hire the best talent no matter where they live, or where they want to live, and keep that staff who are critical to our operations, clearly, no matter where they want to move to, at least in North America.

We see that, this experience with work at home accelerating that move. We also, I think, see the move to the cloud – if it needed any kind of acceleration, which it didn't – it got another one with this whole experience, because the ability for the cloud architectures out there to deal with the flexible demands, and to deal with the ability to get up and running quickly, to deal with people on a distributed remote basis, those are all things that the cloud does better right now. I think that will accelerate even further.

But I think there's another, more subtle kind of outcome that we can see. Most of our customers, when I've talked to them over the years, and in my role as Chief Customer Officer, I get to speak, kind of, with the executive level of our main customers' operations, and when we've talked about disaster recovery and business continuity planning, it’s always been around, kind of, the geographic infrastructure failures, right? A certain physical location goes away. And how do we deal with that?

This time this is different. We're dealing with, kind of, a threat to the workforce, right, and dealing with a very different kind of angle on business continuity.

I think what we will see is a change in planning, a change in looking at how things like self-service and AI-enabled technologies might be warranted to help in these situations. I think we'll see some reduced rigidity around schedules, the use of permanent versus part-time workers, kind of, distance learning. All of the kind of things that the gig economy was starting to drive anyway. But, I think, because of COVID-19, and the unfortunate reality that we're facing, just all of those things have received a really serious accelerator, and a different view on the lens that's going to be shone upon business continuity efforts and planning.

Jim: You're kind of leading into an area that I wanted to get your input on. This goes to the changes that we're seeing across a broad number of industries because of technology. What are those areas you see that are having an impact? I mean, you've already mentioned cloud. You've mentioned AI, but you might want to go a little bit deeper into some of those trends that you're seeing.

By the way, I agree with you. The contact center is such a critical component. I think our industry is seeing that as we look at conferences that are focused on the general business, and how much more attention is being given to contact centers, how important those are to organizations, both providing services internal to an organization, and external to customer-facing people.

Getting back to the question here, what are the kind of trends that you're seeing in our industry, and what you see moving forward?

Frank: Sure, Jim. I know we've talked about it a little bit already in terms of cloud. But, there's no question that cloud is kind of the big overarching trend across certainly our industry, and contact centers, and business communications, and across the entire spectrum of technology, quite frankly. But, I will admit I was a bit of a naysayer. Because I'm old enough to remember constructs like Centrex and the old IBM mainframe service bureaus, where those were, essentially, early forms of cloud.

There was a time two or three years ago when I thought that this was just another vendor-driven initiative for a different kind of revenue growth, right? Maybe call me a bit of a cynic on that. But, I no longer believe that to be the case.

I think the lightbulb went on for me when there was a recognition that the big difference between some of those older those older approaches and in the cloud today is the nature of innovation that is facilitated by kind of the new cloud architecture or microservices.

Then, the ability to consume innovation because it's available with virtually no lag time. That's a game changer.

The days of waiting for IT departments to have time to do an update, so the business could take advantage of the latest functionality, which sometimes happened once a year in the best case. Those days are gone.

With the cloud, the ability to consume functionality on an as-needed basis for only those who need it, so it really shortens time to value. The ability to deliver business outcomes, it's just, simply the way things will be done moving forward.

We think that's a trend to stay for the reasons I've stated. But, what's interesting is, despite that, there are still at least 90 percent, maybe 80 percent, Jim. I don't know the numbers today.

But certainly, a vast majority of contact centers out there are still premise-based. The opportunities to take advantage of the clouds are certainly still ahead of us for those of us in this space.

Jim: There's no question, but how cloud has changed everything. If you think about a model where you used to have to buy a big chunk of iron; that's being replaced by cloud. And in that process, it's not just the end user who is going, maybe from a CapEx to an OpEx service. The channels who deliver those services are changing pretty dramatically, where in the past, companies used to sell that big chunk of iron and make a lot of money. What kind of impact is that having cloud in the role of people like you that are integrators providing those services?

Frank: That's something that has certainly been on our minds, and companies like ourselves, at Altivon and others in a similar capacity in the industry. I'll admit, there were days two or three years ago when I listened to the cloud contact center vendors marketing their solutions as dead simple to deploy, and do-it-yourself, plug and play…I worried that the need for systems integrators and customer partners like Altivon would be significantly diminished. The reality now, though, I think, based on what we're seeing, is that there's an even greater demand for folks like us in the ecosystem.

I think while the software itself is easier to deploy, and as you mentioned, all of the infrastructure build components are eliminated from the project timelines, the need to apply it, the solution to a particular organization's unique customer experience requirements are not any different than they used to be. The amount of consulting if you will, the amount of needs analysis. Customization is the wrong word, but certainly focus on the way they want to deal with the customer experience is no different. And I'll quote Amy Lewis, who's our VP of Client Services, she likes to say that, "Moving a poorly designed premise contact center to the cloud is not going to fix the issues." Moving to the cloud on its own is simply one step along the path to doing a better job of serving one's customers.

The other fact that we're seeing is that there's an increasing complexity that the cloud is delivering. What I mean by that are that the number of applications, the number of new functional capabilities, the things that now can be brought to the table, customers need more help than ever.

There's no institutional knowledge within our customers, or any that I'm aware of around how to deal with true omnichannel, artificial intelligence, deep analytics, and doing things in a brand-new way, dealing with consumers in a fashion that has never been seen before… Customers need help with that. No one has done this before. We, as organizations might only be a little bit ahead. We might only be six to 12 months ahead of our customers on some of these things. But we are ahead, and we're learning as we go. So, we can increase the likelihood of our customers achieving the desired business outcomes that they want on the initial implementation.

If I may just continue for a second. I think, the other big piece that we're seeing now, especially as cloud deployments are now getting deployed, and kind of, in the “Day 2” support world, that's where we see a significant need for people like us.

As IT departments have, kind of, turned these solutions over to the business users to run because they're cloud-based and don't need as much internal IT support, the business users are struggling with how to manage these environments, how to take advantage of this continuous innovation.

It's not that IT departments are abdicating the traditional roles, but they're no longer the subject matter experts. They're no longer the internal guides to vetting vendor enhancements, and making sure that user departments are getting what they need, and when they need it.

This is where folks like us come into play. Some of our white glove treatment and our value-added services for “post Day 2” deployment are, quite frankly, even more important in the cloud world than they were in the premise world. It's an interesting, kind of, change in our role, but we see it as important as ever.

Jim: I have to agree. The BC experts get together on calls regularly that we're not recording where we're talking about what's going on in the industry. One of the things that we've seen is that there was a dip in the consulting business that some of our experts do in the contact center space. What they discovered is exactly what you said. People thought they could do it alone. They were hearing the vendor-speak about how easy it is to implement, you could do it yourself, it's fast and quick. What they found is that they're picking up a lot of business where someone tried to do an implementation, and they need help. There's always an opportunity for good systems integrators out there. It's not going away because things have moved to the cloud.    

I'd like to go back because I interrupted you as we were talking about some of the new technologies and trends. You had just started to jump into AI, which of course is really important in the contact center, and I think, leading the way. So, let me let you get back into that discussion.

Frank: Sure. Thanks, Jim. Turning back to some of the bigger trends, AI is certainly, right after cloud, one of the things that our customers and prospective clients talk about the most with us.

There's certainly lots of coverage in the trade presses around AI. I think there are some misconceptions around AI. Many people think about AI as, albeit an exciting tool, but certainly a tool primarily for self-service in their realm of bots, chat bots, and voice bots, and those sorts of things. In the same way that Amazon and Google have impacted the home voice assistant world, these bots are impacting the self-service world in a very positive way. Albeit, some early failures along the way as people without a whole lot of customer-facing experience were deploying some of these things, but I think we've gotten over that bump.

But, I think that I'm going to give kudos to Genesys for taking a slightly different approach with AI that takes it beyond, sort of, the realm of self-service. Their view is that AI is essentially a fundamental enabling technology across the entire platform. What that means and the best way I heard it explained to me was, essentially anywhere the software has to make a decision, or the customer has to make a decision, or an agent has to make a decision is where AI and machine learning can be applied.

That kind of opens up my eyes, certainly. As people think about this, kind of, the vast potential that AI can have, and being massively more than what we might have thought.

It's this approach that has allowed Genesys and others to create what they're coining, a new segment, which I love. It's Experience-as-a-Service, which is essentially the foundational element of that being personalization on a micro level. Where not only for each customer, but that each customer in the moment and time when they're dealing with an organization, that experience is personalized to their preference at that point in time. You can only deliver that with significant support from a technology perspective.

You can only deliver that with AI and machine learning, delivering the information in the moment, at the time it's needed to allow for those personalized customer-preferred interactions when the time is right.

That is what's going to be required to deliver trust and ultimately loyalty, which is, as we all know, the Holy Grail for long-term success. I have kind of gone on about AI. We can spend hours on AI But, I think, it's the only way we're going to get some of this personalization done. It's the only way we're going to deliver it at scale. It's the only way we're going to enable our agents to be able to deliver what they need in the moment of truth when they're dealing with customers.

Jim: Great – any other trends you would like to spend some time on? How about analytics?

Frank: Yeah, analytics is a good one. That's certainly on the list of things. I think there's, kind of, four big ones. That's the third on my list. I think that analytics is, kind of, the basic requirement, if you will, for some of the things I've already mentioned. The ability to deliver these personalized experiences in the moment of truth are based on understanding what is required, and that's based on data, right? It requires data and strong analytics on that data to be able to see the trends, both on a macro level, and an individual customer level, so that you can do things like predictive engagement and predictive routing.

Predictive engagement is where you're actually understanding what the customer is doing in the moment, perhaps on your website. Then, predicting whether they're going to be able to get to the desired business outcome that individual is likely looking for? If not, then intercede with offers for automation or human assistance.

That kind of ability is only based on being able to do analytics. Analytics is kind of interesting area. Too often people look at analytics as, kind of, looking at a bunch of data, and then making a decision based on, or understanding what the trends are. That's fine. But it's kind of like driving a car or looking through the rearview mirror. I think the only real value comes is if you're starting to use it in a predictive fashion. If you're using it in the moment of dealing with a customer.

In the moment of interaction, will analytics truly deliver its full value? Not to minimize the importance of it from a trend perspective and the kind of more macro-based decisions that are happening, but if you're going to deliver micro-based personalization, the meta-analytics engine has to be able to do it in a real-time basis.

Again, like AI, and like analytics, they require incredible computing power, which is only able to be done for most organizations in the cloud. Again, it starts to feed on itself, right? The cloud becomes another, a key component to both AI and analytics being able to be delivered.

The last piece, I think, in terms of big trends is around the workforce engagement piece. The forgotten and most important factor in the loyalty equation is, kind of, the lowly agent, right?

For many years, we've focused on the customer experience. Thankfully, and for all the right reasons, our industry is now starting to recognize that the agent experience is as important as the customer experience. That's where the true magic happens. Lots of attention and lots of R&D budgets are being turned towards the agent engagement piece, and being able to have an engaged agent, which means having an informed, motivated agent that's assisted where they're needed with and by AI engines. Assigning them work that optimizes their skill and the ability for them to deliver the desired outcome at a particular point in time for a particular interaction, that's, kind of, the target. There's lots and lots of attention being placed on that.

I think we're going to see more and more spend being spent on the agent side of the equation, which is, I think, long overdue and will be welcome. It will make a big difference, quite frankly, in the overall ability to drive loyalty for customers. Those are the big trends we see, Jim.

I sat in a conference about a year ago. I listened to, and forgive me, I'm not going to remember which brand this chief customer officer worked for. It was one of the big ones, a big airliner, or a big consumer brand.

He stood up and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we live at the corner of complexity and velocity. If you're not careful, if you step off the curb without looking both ways, you're going to get run over."

I think that certainly, kind of, captures, I think, the state of our business, right? Given what's going on in the world, and kind of the degree of acceleration of capability from the cloud, and some of the things we've talked about, it's tough. It's a hard time to be in our business. It's an incredibly exciting time as a result, because we're breaking new ground, but, I think our customers need the guidance. Thank you to people like you and BCStrategies folks, and the consultants you work with, and the analysts to help drive some of the leadership around what to do next. Because it's hard.

People are trying to run their businesses while trying to consume all of these great things that we technologists are trying to deliver to them, and it's hard work. But, I think that, yeah, the ultimate outcome will be engaged agents delivering loyalty for customers. At the end of the day, that's what we're all trying to do. Hopefully, that helps.

Jim: That's very good. Clearly, as part of your organization, you've had the opportunity to help a lot of people. You've got all of this vast experience and vast knowledge.

If someone is listening to this podcast and says, "boy, I could probably use Avilon's help," what's the best way for them to reach out and start a discussion? We'll post whatever you tell us.

Frank: Yeah, of course. I'd love to chat about this stuff, as hopefully you can tell. I can go on for a long time on this. I love to talk to individuals about their perspectives.

I learn as much as I hope others learn from me. That's how we raised the waters right?

But, if people want to reach out to me, my e-mail address is Frank F-r-a-n-k, dot Tersigni, T-e-r-s-i-g-n-i, at Altivon dot com, A-l-t-i-v-o-n dot com. I always give out my phone number, 602-797-1250. Feel free to reach out to me, I look forward to it.

I hope that I'm able to help folks and that I have shared some things that maybe some people might think about and learn from. Hopefully, this has been good.

Jim: Good. Frank, thank you for your time. Thank you for your insight, really appreciate it. I wish you all the best. I hope to see you in real-time one of these days soon when we're, kind of, through this Coronavirus, the COVID-19 situation.

Frank: Thank you, Jim. I appreciate the opportunity today. Certainly, I hope to see you soon. Everyone out there, stay healthy and stay safe. Thank you.

Jim: Thanks.


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