Next IT Alme

This week’s report is a product evaluation of Next IT’s virtual agent offering Alme (All me). The report updates our November 28, 2012 product evaluation. Just a reminder, Alme is the software behind about 20 deployments, all for B2C organizations. You’ve might have had some of your travel questions answered by Jenn of Alaska Airlines or Alex of United Airlines. Next IT is one of the pioneers in virtual agent technology. The firm was founded in 2002 in Spokane, WA and introduced its first product in 2004.

Remember that Alme uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) to analyze customers’ question and to match them with answers in its knowledgebase and in external applications. Key components are an NLP engine and a language model. The language model specifies language constructs that adapt the Alme to the lexicon of the deployment’s domain. Analysis of customers’ questions by the engine, using the language model allows Alme’s virtual agents’ answers to be dynamic and personalize-able through the access and analysis of data from external applications.

So what’s new in Alme? Lots. In the year or so since our last evaluation, Next IT has been quite busy. Its developers have made Alme a more attractive, more powerful offering that’s easier to deploy and to manage through significant improvements to its language model and its tools.

  • Language model improvements help virtual agents deliver more accurate and more personalized answers and solutions to customers’ questions and problems. For example, Alme can use information within customers’ questions to establish a context for their “conversations” with virtual agent. This context makes conversations more natural and helps virtual agents deliver answers and solutions more quickly. Also, Alme now has a new conversational model that helps virtual agents perform complex tasks for customers. And, another new language model feature helps virtual agents handle ambiguous questions and questions that contain idiomatic phrases.
  • New and improved tools make virtual agents faster and easier to deploy and manage and make Next IT’s clients more self-sufficient. In our previous evaluation, we had identified limitations in change management and team support. Next IT has addressed those limitations quite nicely in the tools of the current version. Also, the new Response Management toolset decouples the complex work of language model design, specification, and maintenance from simpler content/knowledge management work. As a result, organizations that license Alme can do more of the work to deploy and manage Alme virtual agents and become less dependent of Next IT professional services.

Alme’s key strength and most significant differentiator has been its capability to deliver very sophisticated answers to complex questions. Language model improvements make Alme stronger. For example, healthcare companies might use the new conversation model to collect the information required to complete an insurance application, a referral to a specialist, or a follow-up reminder to a prescription. On the topic of healthcare, Next IT has begun a major and very timely initiative in that market segment. On October 10, 2013, the firm announced Alme for Healthcare. Alme for Healthcare uses all of the new language model capabilities, especially the new conversational model for both of its applications—a clinical application that helps inform, coach, and engage patients and an administrative application that helps patients and administrative/support staff with forms, processes, and information retrieval. Look for announcements about the companies using Alme for Healthcare soon.

Improved tools make Alme more attractive and more competitive. Time and cost to deployment have been issues for all customer service applications. Deploying virtual agent products has been particularly expensive because language models are complex, domain-specific, deployment-specific, and proprietary. Companies that license virtual agent software depend on their suppliers to design, specify, implement, test, and manage language models and knowledgebases. Time to deployment can be pretty long, approaching a year in some cases. Next IT has provided all the services for initial virtual agent deployment and ongoing management. Some of its customers use those services. However, new tools and tools improvements give customers the opportunity to do much of this work themselves and give Next IT’s professional services consultants the facilities that speed and simplify the tasks that they perform for customers. The results: shortened time and reduced cost to deployment, faster ROI, and faster and easier ongoing management.

Virtual agents have become far more than avatars and FAQs in a box on your support page. Alme demonstrates and proves that virtual agents can do serious customer service work and Next IT continues to make Alme more attractive. A virtual agent should be an integral component of every customer service application portfolio.

Advertisements

A Good Quarter for Customer Service in 3Q2013

This week, continuing our tenth year of quarterly updates on the suppliers and products in customer service, we published our 3Q2013 Customer Service Update Report. Just a reminder, these reports examine customer service suppliers and their products along the dimensions of customer growth, financial performance, product activity, and company activity. We currently cover ten leading customer service suppliers. They lead in overall market influence and share, in market segment influence and share, and/or in product technology and innovation.

3Q2013 was a good quarter for customer service. Customer growth was up and improved customer growth resulted in improved financial performance. Product activity was light. Six of our suppliers did not make any product announcements, but remember that third quarters are summer quarters. They’re usually never big for products. Company activity was also on the light side but what company action we saw was highlighted by expansion into new markets by four of our suppliers. That’s a key customer service trend and a solid indicator of customer service growth in the quarters ahead. Here’s a bit more detail:

  • On July 17, IntelliResponse and BolderView, a Melbourne, AU-based consultancy specializing in virtual agent solutions for large enterprises in utilities, banking, technology, higher education and government markets, jointly announced that BolderView had become a value-added reseller of IntelliResponse VA for Australia and New Zealand. Within the release, IntelliResponse also announced the opening of its own office in Sydney, AU.
  • On September 5, KANA and Wipro jointly announced a partnership that will apply Wipro’s consulting, systems integration, and insurance industry expertise and experience to accelerate deployments of KANA Enterprise for large global insurers and financial services providers. The companies will form a dedicated, joint deployment team to work on customer deployments.
  • On September 17, Clarabridge announced the expansion of its global operations into Latin America. A sales team will use Miami, FL offices and will leverage Clarabridge’s partnerships with Accenture, Deloitte, and Salesforce.com initially to focus on opportunities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.
  • On September 25, Moxie announced the expansion of its operations in Europe. The expansion includes opening an office in Reading, UK, forming partner ships with Spitze & Company in Denmark and IZO in Spain, and appointing Andrew Mennie General Manager for EMEA.

This expansion is a win for customer service suppliers, a win for their customers, and a win for their customers’ customers.

It’s already winning for customer service suppliers. For example, Moxie claims to have doubled its European customer base in the last six months. New customers include Allied Irish Bank and the British Army. IntelliResponse and BolderView recently launched “Olivia,” their first joint virtual agent deployment. Olivia is the virtual agent for Optus, Australia’s second largest telecommunications provider. And, Creative Virtual, a UK-based virtual agent software supplier that we’ve been covering in our quarterly reports for the past four quarters, recently announced Sabine, the Dutch-speaking virtual agent for NIBC Direct, the online retail unit of The Hague, NE-based bank. Sabine’s deployment is supported from Creative Virtual’s new Amsterdam office. See Sabine at the bottom right of NIBC Direct’s home page, below.

nibc png

Expansion demonstrates the strength and viability of customer service suppliers. Their products have reached the level of maturity and reliability that their deployment “far from home” carries little or no risk. They have the resources to open offices and hire the staff to promote, sell, and support their products in new markets. And they recognize the potential for new and additional business in those markets.

Our suppliers’ customers and their (end) customers in Australia and New Zealand, Latin America, and Europe benefit, too. Customer service applications like Clarabridge Analyze, a CEM (Customer Experience Management) app, Creative Virtual V-Person and IntelliResponse VA (Virtual Agent) virtual agents apps, and Moxie Social Knowledgebase, a social customer service app have been proven to lower cost to serve and to improve customer experiences. Companies in expanded markets that deploy these apps will have more satisfied, more profitable customers. These apps will help answer customers’ questions and solve customers’ problems more quickly and more easily.

We’ve been ready for this expansion. Language support has long been a criterion in our frameworks for evaluating customer service applications. We examine the languages that the apps support for internal users and the globalization/localization facilities to deploy the apps to end customers. Generally, we’ve found that most customer service apps can be localized to support locale-specific deployments. On the other hand, the tools and reporting capabilities for internal users tend to be implemented and supported only in English.