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Proactive Conversations – what is that all about?
by Prof. Mark K. Smith

Last month Gartner put ContactEngine into one of its Sample Vendor lists in their Hype Cycle for Customer Service and Support Technologies 2020 – specifically under Proactive Communications Applications & Services.

Thing is, 'proactive' has become a bandwagon that those who are actually 'reactive' have all jumped on in recent times.

So it’s worth analysing exactly what makes ContactEngine (who, by a factor of 100x, were by far the smallest player listed) truly proactive?

Let me tell you a story. Years ago we accidently built an omni-channel conversation toolkit. I say by accident and that’s sort of true because we went though a couple of inflections to truly find ourselves. We created the ability to start a conversation by e-mail, by automated telephone call, by SMS, by Instant Messenger, by voice assistant (if they ever go truly spontaneous), and in fact by any channel you fancy. But the thing was we were not absolutely certain how to charge for our service. At the time - and still to this day - many software companies charged ‘per seat’ – meaning their lovely software is paid for by tooling up a human agent. Now we didn’t think that made much sense for us – as the ability to start a conversation spontaneously didn’t actually need a human at all. Huge advances in Natural Language Understanding meant that a machine could easily start a conversation but also, and this is very important, continue a conversation until the business objective was achieved.

So to charge per-seat seems silly as conversations could be happening right across the whole customer life cycle, not ‘just’ limited to sales, or service, or billing, or marketing, etc. So we went, initially anyway, for a transaction model – whereby when we started a conversation we were sort of paid for a reply. This morphed as we grew larger – as there are now 100s of different conversations per client, we are now more ‘all you can eat’ – but the principle of a not being ‘per seat’ still stands.

Those companies that had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, focussed their attention on ‘inbound’ automation – and in truth mostly on what is called ‘agent augmentation’ (imagine Robocop – only less violence). So things like chatbots popped up all over the shop to help deflect waves of unpredictable inbound enquires. Sometimes they work – mostly they irritate. I had an interaction with one only last week from that huge online e-talier (the one that has a cavalier attitude towards tax – yes, that one) about a product that has not appeared – even though the system said that not only was it delivered but that we’d also signed for it! One moronic chatbot chat later and nothing explained the missing item – until one of my very distant neighbours dropped the parcel by – having explained that despite a correct address and a clear number and name on my house – that the delivery guy had just given up…

Anyway, I digress – proactive is designed to stop this problem – stopping a customer from reaching for the phone or the keyboard to find stuff out. Proactive needs a trigger of some kind – which can be very simple – say an order placed for something that needs installing, or it can be reactive – say if a network is down, a service delayed by the weather (or a pandemic!) or because a customer is clearly having difficulty (a router constantly being rebooted – or a loan application that has failed to be completed).

Now proactive communication is very, very hard. Contacting someone at random, without their permission to do so and getting their name and product wrong is worse than doing nothing at all. Clearly we don’t do that – instead we code ‘empathetically’, seeking clarification even if our AI seems to have worked out a customer’s intent correctly, and we can do that because we have carried out literally 100s of millions of conversations all over the world and learned how to do it perfectly.

So when I saw our name in a list of mega companies that ‘do proactive’ I had mixed feelings. Firstly I was proud as punch to be seen in such good company – but secondly I was also miffed as we didn’t start as a reactive, inbound player – we went the extra million miles to begin pioneering proactive outbound conversational AI before it even was a thing!

So before you think about proactive communication think about ContactEngine first, it’s literally all we care about!

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