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.

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.

Product Evaluation: Oracle Service Cloud Social Experience

Oracle Service Cloud Social Experience 

Our evaluation of the August 2013 Release of Oracle Service Cloud Social Experience is this week’s report. You may be more familiar with the product by its former RightNow CX Social Experience or Oracle RightNow Cloud Service Social Experience names. Oracle acquired RightNow in January 2012 and, without a formal announcement, renamed the product sometime during 2Q2013. One other point about the acquisition, the former RightNow R&D team has continued to develop the product, has continued to work out of the former RightNow headquarters site in Bozeman, and has continued the regular, quarterly releases of the product.

Social Experience is one of three “Experiences” in Oracle Social Cloud. The other two are Agent Experience and Web Experience. Each is aptly named for the channel that it supports. The three share a base of common data (Customers, accounts, cases, and knowledge items, for example) and services including business rules, process management, user management, and reporting. Also, product packaging and pricing puts Social Experience “in the box” with Agent and Web Experience. So, social customer service is really built into Oracle Service Cloud and that’s its key strength and differentiator.

Social Experience has these three components:

  • Communities, which supports internal community capabilities of posts and responses on topic threads. Oracle Service Cloud Social Experience Communities is based on technology developed by HiveLive that the then RightNow acquired in 2009.
  • Social Monitor, which provides capabilities to monitor posts on the social web—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and RSS feeds as well as Communities, to analyze the content of monitored social posts, and to interact with social posters.
  • Self Service for Facebook, which lets organizations deploy Oracle Service Cloud web experience and Communities capabilities on their Facebook pages to help Facebook users access Oracle Service Cloud Social Experience Communities and knowledgebase as well as to create cases.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, RSS, and Social Experience Communities are the social sources monitored by Social Experience. While these are certainly the key social networks, the product does not monitor some sources that are critical to customer service, particularly external communities, forums, and blogs. These are sources that customers very commonly use to get answers to questions and solutions to problems. That Social Experience doesn’t monitor them is a serious limitation. Oracle already has the technology to address this limitation, technology that came with its June 2012 acquisition of Collective Intellect. Collective Intellect’s IP was social monitoring and analysis technology. Oracle told us that it’s working on integrating this technology with Oracle Service Cloud.

Twitter for Customer Service

On the topic of Twitter, last week, Patty Seybold published, “Four Reasons Why Customers Prefer Twitter for Customer Service,” a report about how businesses and their customers use Twitter as a key channel for customer service. Patty proposes seven best practices for Twitter-based customer service. Oracle Service Cloud Social Experience can help implement four of the seven—Treat Twitter as an Integrated Customer Service Channel, If You Have Lots of Customers, Establish Customer Service Twitter Accounts, Defuse Anger Publicly; Take the Issue Private, Gather Customers’ Ideas for Next-Gen Products. You’ll implement the other three—Set Customers’ Expectations Re: Times of Day You’ll Respond to Tweets in Real Time, Respond within Minutes, and Don’t Use Automated Responses!—with customer service policies, standards, and procedures. Here are the four with brief descriptions of how Oracle Service Cloud Social Experience helps implement them.

  • Treat Twitter as an Integrated Customer Service Channel

Social Experience Social Monitor searches Twitter for Tweets that are relevant to customer service. Agents and/or analysts specify search queries as strings of language-specific terms of 255 characters or fewer. Queries strings may include the exact match (“”), AND, or OR operators. Analysts can save search queries for execution at a later time or for (regularly) scheduled execution.

Social Experience Social Monitor can automatically create customer service cases from the Tweets in search results and automatically appends the info in subsequent Tweets from the same Twitter account to them.

Social Experience captures customers’ Twitter account info within search results and includes them within Oracle Service Cloud customer data.

  • If You Have Lots of Customers, Establish Customer Service Twitter Accounts

Social Experience supports multiple corporate Twitter accounts that it shares among its users. (It supports corporate Facebook accounts, too.) Businesses can create a hierarchy of corporate Twitter accounts for customer service, organizing them in any appropriate manner—by customer or customer company, by products, by customer service level, or by severity or priority, for example. And, Social Experience’s Corporate Twitter accounts can be set to follow customers’ Twitter accounts.

  • Defuse Anger Publicly; Take the Issue Private

Agents specify whether each of their Tweets on their corporate accounts is public or private.

  • Gather Customers’ Ideas for Next-Gen Products

Cases generated from Social Monitor search results can be ideas for next-gen products as well as the representation of questions and problems.

Pretty good, although a bit of content-based alerting on search results could automate Twitter monitoring. Note that these capabilities of Social Experience’s to support Twitter are capabilities that we’ve seen in other social monitoring and analysis offerings, offerings including Attensity Analyze, and Respond, Clarabridge Analyze, Collaborate, and Engage, and KANA Experience Analytics. All of these offerings have been available for a few years. They’re widely-used and well-proven. Any of them can help make Twitter an integrated customer service channel.

Going forward, we’ll extend our framework for evaluating social customer service products to include Patty’s best practices as

2Q2013 Customer Service Stars

This week, continuing our tenth year of quarterly updates on the suppliers and products in customer service, we published our 2Q2013 Customer Service Update Report. 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 eleven 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.

For 2Q2013, overall customer service performance was mixed but three of our suppliers—Clarabridge, IntelliResponse, and Salesforce.com—earned Customer Service Stars for the quarter. Very briefly, Clarabridge is a privately owned firm based in Reston, VA that was founded in 2005. Clarabridge offers a suite of VoC applications. IntelliResponse is a privately owned firm based in Toronto, ON that was founded in 2000. IntelliResponse offers a suite of virtual agent products. Salesforce.com is public (NYSE:CRM) firm based in San Francisco, CA that was founded in 1999. The company has a broad product that includes Salesforce Service Cloud, which provides case management, knowledge management, contact center, and web self-service applications.

So, what’s a Customer Service Star? Well, since 2009, we’ve been awarding Customer Service Stars for excellent quarterly performance balanced across those dimensions of customer growth, financial performance, products, and company activity. (Since 2010, we’ve also been awarding Customer Service Stars for the year—same criteria across four quarters.) It’s not easy to earn a Customer Service Star and we take awarding them pretty seriously. Here are the award criteria:

  • Customer growth: We examine significant quarter-over quarter acquisition of new customers and additional business from existing customers.
  • Financial performance. We examine quarterly revenue improvement as reported for public companies or as we estimate for private companies based on customer growth, customer base, and pricing.
  • Products. We examine new products, new versions in a quarter.
  • Company activity. We examine new M&A, partnerships, branding, patents, organization, and facilities in a quarter.

Typically, we award one Customer Service Star for a quarter. Frequently, we award none. Three in a quarter is a big deal, especially when many of our suppliers did not have good quarter. Here’s how Clarabridge, IntelliResponse, and Salesforce.com earned their Customer Service Stars for 2Q2013:

Customer growth and financial performance

  • On a base of approximately 250 customer accounts, Clarabridge acquired 10 to 15 new customers and did additional business with 55 to 65 existing customers, driving excellent financial performance
  • On a base of approximately 160 customer accounts, IntelliResponse acquired eight new customers and did additional business with six existing customers, driving very good financial performance.
  • On a base of approximately 165,000 customer accounts, growth in subscription and support revenue indicated that Salesforce.com acquired approximately 21,000 new customer accounts. We estimate that something around 20 percent of them licensed customer service products. Total revenue increased by more than seven percent to $957 million.

Products

  • Clarabridge made one product announcement in 2Q2013: Clarabridge 6.0, a major new version of its VoC application suite.
  • IntelliResponse made two product announcements in 2Q2013: OFFERS, a marketing application that delivers targeted offers within a virtual agent’s answers and VOICES, a Voice of the Customer analytic application. Both apps integrate with IntelliResponse Virtual Agent, “IR’s” virtual agent offering.
  • Salesforce.com made four product announcements: Salesforce Mobile Platform Services, mobile application development tools and programs for building and deploying Android, iOS, HTML5, and hybrid applications, Social.com, a new social advertising application, Salesforce Communities, a community application, and a suite of G2C (Government to Citizen) solutions for federal, state, and local agencies all built on Salesforce.com general-purpose apps.

Company activity

  • Clarabridge made three company announcements: a new corporate logo, web site, and brand for its products, a new general Counsel, and a partnership with Brandwatch for collection and analysis of social data.
  • IntelliResponse was awarded a U.S. patent for its answer matching technology.
  • Salesforce.com made three company announcements: an agreement with NTT to build a cloud-computing data center in the UK, the acquisition of ExactTarget, a marketing automation/campaign management supplier, and the appointment of a new President and Vice Chairman.

Props to all three for an excellent quarter!

We know all three of the companies and their current customer service product offerings very well. During 2013, we published a product evaluation of Clarabridge Analyze, Clarabridge Collaborate, and Clarabridge Engage against our Framework for Customer Social-Service on March 28, 2013. We published a product evaluation of IntelliResponse Virtual Agent (VA) against our Framework for Customer Virtual Assisted-Service on May 9, 2013. We published product evaluations of Salesforce Service Cloud against our Framework for Customer Cross-Channel Customer Service on January 24, 2013 and our evaluation of Salesforce Marketing Cloud Radian6 against our Framework for Customer Social-Service on August 1, 2013.

The three suppliers also made it easy for us to do our research for these product evaluations. All three gave us trial versions of their products as well as access to product documentation. For Clarabridge and IntelliResponse, we also read their appropriate patents and patent applications.

We usually publish our Quarterly Customer Service Update reports early in the third and last month of calendar quarters. IntelliResponse and Salesforce.com run on fiscal years that end on January 31. Their fiscal quarters end a month later than calendar quarters.

In a few weeks, we’ll begin research on our 3Q2013 Customer Service Update Report. Third quarters are summer quarters, quarters when the software business (and many other business) typically, shall we say, relaxes. But, we hope that a Customer Service Star or two will shine.

Analytics in Radian6

This week’s report is our evaluation of Radian6, the component of Salesforce Marketing Cloud that does social monitoring, analysis, and interaction. Its tight integration with Salesforce Service Cloud—automatic creation of Cases and Contacts—makes it the obvious social-service choice to add to the customer service application portfolio of Salesforce CRM users

Customer social-service is all about monitoring customers’ conversations in the social cloud, identifying customers with questions, problems, and issues, and then interacting with those customers to answer questions, solve problems, and address issues. The number of customer posts and conversations in the social cloud that may be relevant to a business can be very large, ranging to thousands or even tens of thousands per week and, in the extreme, hundreds of thousands per day. Monitoring and analyzing all of them, identifying the (few) posts that require attention, and then handling each one individually and handling all of them consistently are daunting and complex tasks, daunting because of the sheer volume and complex by the diversity and nuance of language, breadth of topics, and depth of emotion (sentiment).

Most social-service products use third parties to monitor social posts, to crawl and search the key social networks and the hundreds of millions of blogs and forums where customers ask questions, get answers, and make comments.  The value-add of these products is in their analytic capabilities, capabilities that can “understand” the content of social posts. Natural Language Processing (NLP), sometimes called text analytics, is the technology that they most commonly use. And, also most commonly, each of them is built its own NLP implementation. Their companies are built on it, too. These NLP implementations are frequently patented and almost always proprietary. They’re the crown jewels of analytics companies. So, the selection of a social-service application usually involves the evaluation and comparison of NLP implementations, a difficult selection of sophisticated and complex technology.

Not the case for Radian6. It takes the opposite approach. Rather than leverage the data collection capabilities of third parties and apply its own analytics, Radian6 does its own data collection (The current version searches and crawls over 650 million social sources.) and leverages the analytic capabilities of third-party analytics suppliers to understand the content of social posts. (Radian does a bit of its own analytics, too, although its analytics are a bit basic and are not built on NLP.) These 14, third-party analytics suppliers comprise what Salesforce.com calls the Radian6 Insights Ecosystem, Insights for short. They apply their analytic technologies to the social posts collected by Radian6.

The 14 are:

  • Bitext
  • Communication Explorer
  • Clarabridge
  • EpiAnalytics
  • Hottolink
  • Klout
  • LeadSift
  • Lymbix
  • OpenAmplify
  • Open Calais
  • PeekAnalytics
  • Soshio
  • The SelfService Company
  • Trendspottr

Let’s take a little closer look at three Insights to get an idea of their capabilities.

  • The Bitext Sentiment analytic perform Entity extraction and sentiment analysis for posts in Spanish (European and Latin American), Portuguese (Brazilian and European), Italian, and English using natural language processing technology (NLP).
  • Clarabridge provides two analytics. Clarabridge Link Sentiment provides sentiment analysis of social posts in Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish using NLP; Clarabridge Link Classification applies a Universal Category and Classification model to social posts in Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish using NLP.
  • OpenAmplify also provides two analytics. OpenAmplify Cust Svc uses NLP to identify social posts containing potential customer service issues and the topics of those potential issues. OpenAmplify uses NLP to identify sentiment, intention, and topics of social posts.

Salesforce.com offers these Insights like usage-priced cell phone minutes within the subscription licenses and their monthly fees for Radian6 Editions. (Editions are licensing tiers that bundle applications resources.) More specifically, Radian6 Editions include blocks of Insights partner credits. The analysis of one social post by a one analytic application from one partner costs one partner credit. At the low end, Marketing Cloud Radian Basic Edition includes 1,000 Insights partner credits. At the high end, Marketing Cloud Radian Enterprise Edition includes 500,000 Insights partner credits. Blocks of 10,000 additional Insight partner credits are available for a fee of $100 per month. Credits are expire every month (like cell phone minutes).

Insights’ suppliers set up pre-configured deployments of their analytic applications for access and usage by Radian6 licensees at runtime. That approach can be a disadvantage. For NLP based Insights, runtime access means that language models and processing configurations are those implemented by their suppliers for general-purpose usage, not language models and configurations of deployments tailored to the applications and vocabularies of specific businesses and their customers. For example, the Clarabridge Link Classification Insight uses a “Universal Category and Classification” to classify social posts. Analytic processing will still be quite useful, just not custom tailored.

There are also advantages to Radian6’s Insights approach of runtime access to analytic applications. Most significantly, Radian6 lets businesses easily combine and nest these analytics. For example, analysts might use the entity, fact, and event extraction capabilities of Open Calais to find posts relevant to a product launch and then use PeekAnalytics to identify the demographics of those posters. Also, specifying language models and processing configurations for NLP-based analytic applications is complex work, work that Radian6 users do not have to do to get much of the benefits of these sophisticated applications.

The approach to analysis in Radian6 is a significant differentiator and a key factor for selection. Radian6 delivers most of the power of a wide array of third-party analytic applications and the flexibility to use them separately or to combine their processing. Pricing is based on usage. Value is very good.

IntelliResponse VA

Accurate Answers with Fast and Easy Deployment

We’ve just published our Product Review of IntelliResponse Virtual Agent (IntelliResponse VA), the virtual assisted-service offering from IntelliResponse Systems, Inc., a privately held supplier founded in 2000 and based in Toronto, ON Canada. The report completes our latest research series on virtual agents/virtual assisted-service.

We’ve published evaluations of the four leading virtual agent offerings:

  • Creative Virtual V-Person
  • IntelliResponse VA
  • Next IT Active Agent
  • Nuance Nina Web (VirtuOz Intelligent Virtual Agent when we published. Nuance acquired VirtuOz earlier this year.)

Virtual agents implemented on all four can deliver a single answer to a customer’s question on web, mobile, and social channels. Expect the answer to be correct about 90 percent of the time.

Virtual agents deliver bottom line benefits. They can lower cost to serve as compared to live agents and they can improve customer sat by improving the speed, accuracy, and consistency of the answers to customers’ questions.

 Contrast virtual agents with search and knowledgebase approaches that deliver many answers and leave it to the customer to pick the correct one. This single correct answer makes virtual agents useful for answering many kinds of customers’ questions, certainly customer service questions but also questions about your business and about your business policies, processes, and practices, about your products, and everything about your customers’ relationships with you—accounts, orders, bills, and passwords, for example. They can be your agents for marketing, for sales, and for service.

 Like your live agents, it takes time and effort to get virtual agents ready to engage with your customers. You have to give them the knowledge about the business areas that they support. You have to train them to understand your customers’ questions and to correlate or match those questions with the correct answers. The knowledge is contained in/represented by the items in their knowledgebases, their store of predefined answers. Anticipate the questions that your customers will ask, specify the answers, and store them in the virtual agent’s knowledgebase. All four virtual agent products have knowledgebases and provide tools and facilities for creating and managing answers. Your customers’ questions will change and evolve with their relationships and with changes to your offerings of products and services and to your business. Virtual agent’s knowledge has to keep up with those changes (just like live agents’ knowledge).

Training virtual agents to understand your customers’ questions and to correlate/match them to correct answers is the harder part. Virtual agents use very sophisticated and complex technology to analyze customers’ questions and to match them with the answers in their knowledgebases. Analysis and matching is the core processing that virtual agents perform. Analysis and matching technology is the virtual agent supplier’s core IP, its secret sauce. Each of the four has patented some or all of this technology. The suppliers want you to appreciate the sophistication and power of the technology. They don’t give you much detail of what it does or how it works.

(We describe and evaluate how a virtual agent analyzes and matches questions in our product review. We actually read many of the suppliers’ patents to help us understand the technology. In our reports, we describe it a bit, but we focus on what you’ll have to do to use it effectively.)

Creative Virtual V-Person, Next IT Active Agent, and Nuance Nina Web use Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology for their analysis and matching. Each has its own NLP implementation. NLPs perform computational linguistic analyses on customers’ questions, parsing for subjects, verbs, object, and qualifiers, extracting entities, identifying actors and roles, and codifying relationships. This is sophisticated and complex processing.

For a successful virtual agent deployment, you provide critical input to your virtual agent supplier’s NLPs, for example:

  • Words that your customers will likely include in their questions
  • Misspellings, typos, slang, idioms, ad stems for those words
  • Conditions/rules/expressions for how your customers combine words into phrases
  • Parameters for configuring the NLP processing

If you don’t specify the actual words and their various alternative forms that your customers use in their questions, then your virtual agent cannot deliver answers. Complete specification of your customers’ vocabularies is critical. Virtual agent products help considerably with packaged dictionaries of common industry and application terms, but it’s on you to provide the vocabulary specific to your business and your products.

Virtual agent suppliers also provide consulting services to help the NLP specification. These services are essential for a successful virtual agent deployment. These services are also essential for ongoing management of your virtual agent. Remember that customers’ questions are always changing. So is your business.

IntelliResponse VA uses machine learning technology for its analysis and matching. Machine learning is an algorithmic approach. The algorithm learns by training it with sample data in a controlled environment. It applies its learning when it goes live. The sample data that you provide to train an IntelliResponse VA virtual agent are the typical questions that you want it to answer, not the words and phrases in those questions, not various forms of those words, not the relationships between them, just the questions. IntelliResponse VA can do the rest of the work, even to accommodate the ongoing changes in customers’ questions and in your business. IntelliResponse VA virtual agent deployment is easier and faster than NLP-based deployments and delivers answers with the same level of accuracy. Read our report for the details and note that IntelliResponse can also provide those consulting services to help you deploy and manage virtual agents. The details of the work will be a bit different and there will be less work to do, but the objective will be the same—deploying virtual agents that answer customers’ questions.

 

 

NLP in Social Monitoring, Analysis, and Interaction

Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology, frequently called text analytics technology, is key to analyzing what customers are saying about your company. So leveraging NLP in a big part of the best social-service products. NLP input is the content of customers’ posts, messages, and feedback, while NLP output is a tree structure that represents and contains their syntax, semantics, context, and intent. NLP processing performs tasks such as:

  • Corrects spelling
  • Parses content to determine parts of speech and their relationships
  • Extracts entities and facts
  • Resolves vague pronoun antecedents (anaphora)
  • Determines the meaning of unknown words using their morphological attributes
  • Identifies phrases
  • Identifies relationships between words and phrases

This week’s report is about Clarabridge Analyze, Clarabridge Collaborate, and Clarabridge Engage—the Voice of the Customer/ social-service offering from Clarabridge, Inc., a privately-held software supplier based in Reston, VA. Clarabridge Analyze listens, analyzes, reports, and alerts on customer conversations on social and on internal channels. Analyze’s alerts are sent to Collaborate for their assignment and management. From within Collaborate, facilities of Engage let agents respond to and interact with customers.

NLP is a core analysis component of Clarabridge Analyze and the key IP of Clarabridge, Inc. Clarabridge did not supply the details of the functionality of its NLP, certainly not its internals and not very much about its externals.

Clarabridge characterizes its NLP as “proprietary.” While the company owns a few patents, none of them is for its NLP. It protects this IP through minimal disclosure. Other VoC and social monitoring, analysis, and interaction products that we’ve evaluated have taken the steps to patent their NLP technology or have been willing to discuss the details of the technologies that they’ve used to analyze customer conversations. Patents protect the technology from competitors who might copy it but, at the same time, patents reveal the technology to those, like us, who evaluate the products that contain it and those who purchase and use the products. This revealing enables product comparisons and helps ensure that selection decisions address requirements.  (For evaluations of other text analytics-based social monitoring, analysis, and interaction products, we really have read the patents and the patent applications.)

On one hand, understanding what a product does and how it does it are critical to actionable evaluations. For VoC and social monitoring, analysis, and interaction products these are important factors for a product’s performance, throughput and scalability, accuracy, and consistency. Without detailed information on NLP, you’ll be buying a black box. That can be risky. Selection will rely on demonstrations, limited trials, and references.

On the other hand, we’re not language scientists. Our evaluations do not consider the internals of the algorithms that an NLP implementation uses for parsing customer verbatims or for extracting entities, facts, and relationships from them. But, we sure want to know that these products have facilities for automating the analysis of the huge and ever increasing volumes of customer conversations, for performing these analyses quickly and consistently, and for identifying which verbatims need follow-up actions. Clarabridge Analyze does have these facilities. Along with Clarabridge Engage, Clarabridge Analyze can help businesses deliver effective social-service.

Aside

Our 4Q2012 Customer Service Update Report, we complete our ninth year of quarterly updates on the suppliers and products in customer service. Yes, we’ve been writing these reports since 2004, focusing on factors that are important in the evaluation, comparison, and selection of customer service products: customers, products, and company activity, staffing, and financial performance.

This quarter the suppliers and products are: 

  • Aptean                              Knova
  • Attensity                          Attensity Analyze and Attensity Respond
  • eGain                                 eGain Service
  • IntelliResponse                 IntelliResponse Virtual Agent (VA)
  • KANA                              KANA Enterprise, KANA Experience Analytics
  • Moxie                                Spaces by Moxie
  • Next IT                             ActiveAgent
  • Nuance/VirtuOz                VirtuOz Intelligent Virtual Agent
  • Oracle RightNow              Oracle RightNow CX Cloud Service
  • Salesforce.com                  Service Cloud, Knowledge, Marketing Cloud (Radian6)

Briefly, 4Q2012 was a very good quarter for customer service. Very good customer growth was the quarter’s highlight. Very good financial performance reflected customer growth. Product activity was up. Eight of our suppliers made product announcements. Mergers and acquisitions were once again the big company news as Nuance acquired VirtuOz.

How about a little historical perspective.

Let’s go back five years to our 4Q2007 Customer Service Update Report. We stated in that report that customer Service suppliers closed out 2007 with a very good fourth quarter. Customer growth was the driver and $1 million+ deals made the quarter. Only two suppliers made significant product announcements. Company activity was low. In 4Q2007, the suppliers and products that we covered were:

  • ATG                                 Self-Service, Commerce
  • eGain                                 eGain Service
  • InQuira                              InQuira 8
  • InStranet                           Contact Centers In-Line
  • KANA                              KANA Service Solutions
  • KNOVA                           KNOVA Application Suite
  • RightNow                         RightNow CRM

A couple of points to compare customer service at the end of 2007 with customer service at the end of 2012.

We mentioned, ” $1 million+ deals made the quarter.” In 2007 only one of our suppliers, RightNow, offered subscription licenses for what we called at the time SaaS deployments of its products. All of the other suppliers offered perpetual licenses with one-time fees for on-premise deployments. By the way, RightNow also offered on-premise deployment but was working to phase them out in favor of the cloud.

Today, subscription licenses and cloud computing deployment have become the norm. For customers, cloud computing means much lower initial investment, much lower initial effort, few dependencies of environmental factors like server operating systems, web infrastructures, and databases, and much lower maintenance effort as suppliers typically provide automatic updates for new versions and releases. For suppliers, cloud computing means more stable financial performance without the worry of those $1+ million deals slipping out of quarters. It also results in easier and lower cost maintenance as every customer pretty much runs the same version of their software, Note that many of our suppliers still offer perpetual licenses and on-premise deployment as an option.

There are similarities and differences in the rosters of our suppliers. While many of the names are the same, only eGain is the same supplier 4Q2012 as it as was in 4Q2007. And, eGain Service today is just a new and (much) improved version of eGain Service in 2007.

Oracle has made the biggest impact on our roster suppliers, acquiring, ATG, InQuira, and RightNow. In products, Oracle ATG Commerce is Oracle’s key ecommerce offering. Oracle ATG Self-Service is gone. Oracle InQuira, paired with Oracle Siebel, is Oracle on-premise offering for customer service. Oracle InQuira provides search and knowledge management capabilities, still at the same level of functionality (but that’s a story for another time). Oracle RightNow CX Cloud Service is Oracle’s customer service offering for cloud deployment. It’s been integrated with Oracle Fusion marketing and sales applications to create a cloud based CRM suite. Most significantly, as we’ve mentioned in each of our quarterly Customer Service Update Reports since the acquisition closed in January of 2012, Oracle RightNow continues to introduce regular quarterly releases of Oracle RightNow CX Cloud Service. The offering is stronger now than it was before the acquisition.

InStranet was acquired by Salesforce.com in August 2008. InStranet Contact Centers In-Line has become the technology foundation to Salesforce Knowledge, the knowledge management component of Salesforce Service Cloud.

KANA, a public company in 4Q2007, was taken private in October 2009. KANA Service Solutions, a suite of customer service applications, have, for the most part, been removed from KANA’s product set. From 2008 to 2010, KANA made a huge investment to build a process oriented customer service offering called Service Experience Management (SEM). SEM is part of the current KANA Enterprise. KANA Experience Analytics is based on technology that came to KANA in its 2011 acquisition of Overtone.

KNOVA, the supplier, was acquired by Consona Corporation in 2006. Consona Corporation merged with CDC Software in October 2012 to become Aptean. KNOVA, the knowledge management application was a strategic offering for Consona. At the moment, Aptean is trying to figure out where it fits within its very broad and overlapping product set.

In 4Q2007, customer service applications were case management applications, knowledge management applications, or email response management systems. We’ve never covered case management or email response management. Even when we started our customer service research ten years ago, we felt that these apps had become commodities and that we could offer little value add in evaluating and comparing them.

In 4Q2012, the customer service application portfolio has grown and customer service has become much more efficient and effective. Mobile, social, and the continual pressure to lower cost to serve have been the drivers. Only Knova remains a traditional knowledge management system. eGain Service, KANA Enterprise, Oracle RightNow CX Cloud Service, and Salesforce Service Cloud have all added mobile and social capabilities. Attensity Analyze and Attensity Respond provide social monitoring, analysis, and interaction. IntelliResponse, Next IT, and Nuance offer virtual agent products. Virtual agents are a major refinement of knowledge management applications. They deliver a single answer or solution to customers’ questions or problems rather than hundreds or maybe thousands of knowledge items from which customers are expected to make a selection.

Pretty amazing. Customer service has come a long way in five years—new companies, new technologies, products, and applications, new channels, and new ways to license those applications. Progress for sure.