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UC Expo 2019: Experts talk up future tech in unified communications

Automation and AI are increasingly prevalent in unified comms, but do enterprises really need it?

In the future, artificial intelligence (AI) will become a greater part of an enterprise’s unified communications (UC) infrastructure, but for all the talk of innovation at this year’s UC Expo, there are some who question whether this technology, and others beside, will ever make it out of a supplier’s demo lab and be used for real within organisations.

It seems that, in a bid to steer clear of the hype surrounding AI, many suppliers are starting to hit the thesaurus and come up with terms that sound a bit like it, but don’t say so outright – this is possibly a wise strategy.

In a keynote speech to kick off the conference, Amy Chang, senior vice-president of Cisco’s collaboration technology group, talked up the concept of “cognitive collaboration”. Chang was keen to point out that what Cisco was offering was not some kind of vapourware years off into the horizon, but something customers could use today.

In a demo, Chang showed how this cognitive collaboration worked. The example was given where, in a meeting, participants would have access to all the relevant information about others attending at their fingertips. Not only would you be able to see their name and job title, but technology would intelligently scour the internet to collate info on attendees and present it in a digestible format – rather like a souped-up cross between LinkedIn and creepy stalking.

“What we created was a super scale data ingestion engine, which every nanosecond of the day is on the hunt for anything about a person or company,” said Chang.

So good is this technology that Chang reckons that if a person has a common name, such as Amy, it will present data on the right Amy with about 97% accuracy. This should make for shorter meetings, presumably, as a lot of small talk is ejected.

Future of chatbots

In a later panel discussion on the state of UC, there was a lot of talk about AI emerging in the unified sphere, but Dave Michels, principal analyst at TalkingPointz, appeared to rule out chatbots from that future. “Chatbots don’t work,” he said. But there was an abundance of innovation in his opinion. Although there was no great leap forward, there were plenty of small steps, with “innovation coming from the smaller companies”.

This point was echoed by Dominic Black, senior analyst at Cavell Group, who said innovation was coming from smaller companies that were more agile and building their own apps, specifically on user experience.

Bill Haskins, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse, said big companies were still innovating – driven by market pressure – but this innovation was across the stack and not focused on specific niches within those stacks. However, the barriers facing big company innovation with UC were maintaining backwards compatibility and ensuring integration within a supplier’s platform, he said.

Whether the innovation is coming from big or small players, Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst at Commfusion, said companies should think less about the technological innovation and focus on what they are trying to achieve.

She said that since the 1990s, companies have had access to tech such as screen pops, which show information about a caller to a customer service agent. The technology has been around for years, but some companies still find it hard to implement. So, never mind what AI is promising, organisations are still struggling to get to grips with decades-old stuff.

“When you are talking to vendors that are talking about great innovations such as how AI is going to help automate everything and make it easier, just think about what you are trying to accomplish and what your company’s goals are for your employees and your customers,” said Pleasant. “Don’t buy into the latest cutting-edge technologies – just focus on your goals.”

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The final panel discussion of the day centred on future trends in UC. Katie Gibbs, head of AI at BJSS, said there is a shift in using AI within UC to intelligence augmentation, where the technology “can enhance the way staff operate”.

Another “exciting opportunity” for AI is using the tech to “combine visibility into every single channel the customer uses”, said Gibbs. So, rather than just having a customer deal with a chatbot, AI would be used to understand “every single interaction a customer has with an organisation”, be that online or in a branch. The use of AI would lead to a more personalised service for customers, she said.

Increasing automation will enable customers to spend their time interacting with companies using a variety of communications methods. Simon Burckhardt, UK managing director of Vonage, said CCaaS (contact centre as a service) will be a “game changer” in the way businesses communicate with their customer bases, “particularly businesses with a large B2C customer base, because what it enables you to do is to program into your customer communication processes methods of communicating with them via messaging, SMS or via voice, in a way that doesn’t involve a human interface”.

Burckhardt highlighted companies such as Uber and as examples of where customers don’t ring them up, but use an app or website for virtually all interactions with these companies. He pointed out that his daughters buy clothes from ASOS, never from a shop, and don’t know how to use a call centre – all contact is via email and text messaging.

“There is a generational divide,” he said. “I don’t think anyone under 30 expects to call a business – they expect to deal with them online in some kind of messaging format. You have to look at that as a way of changing your business.”

Burckhardt added that embracing how the next generation communicates with businesses now will help companies become the Uber of their industry sector or prevent them from losing out to an Uber-like competitor in the future.

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