Customer support and procurement, like many other walks of life, have been forced online. This has created an increased demand for products and services that harness AI for enhancing its quality for customers and cutting costs for companies. Three Estonian start-ups – MindTitan, FeelingStream, and Pactum – offering digital management services are answering this demand. What does the crisis look like for them?
“Perhaps you have seen in closed shopping malls people hunched over computers behind half-drawn security curtains?,” asks Markus Lippus, Data Science Lead at MindTitan, and smiles. “These are AI trainers. One of our clients, a big telecom, had to find a new use for their 190-strong customer support force. Since their online queries have gone up many-fold, they hired us to develop their chatbot AI. And since their customer support teams are the experts, these people are now teaching AI to respond to customers’ needs.”
MindTitan is offering customised AI solutions to a variety of needs. They have several new projects directly influenced by the crisis. For example, they are now providing mobile positioning for Statistics Estonia, and the Emergency Response Centre uses their speech-to-text solutions for analysing citizens’ needs. But according to Mr. Lippus, these projects are signalling more permanent changes.
“The latter project with the Emergency Response Centre shows that these novel-ish projects are actually opening up managers’ minds to more permanent solutions. With them, we are working on a solution that would allow the AI to identify callers’ emergencies in real-time,” Mr. Lippus says. “This will permanently enhance our emergency handling capabilities.”
What these three companies were worried about at the outbreak of the crisis was the possibility that AI was still seen as an extravagant add-on to the more tangible needs of companies. This, however, proved to be false.
99% of data goes to waste
“I like to make the comparison with motor sports,” Lauri Ilison, Chief AI Architect at FeelingStream, explains. “Think about how much data a sports car creates during one lap. This is comparable to how much data companies are actually gathering when their customers call or write them. And sadly, 99% of the time this goes to waste or is analysed with such a delay that it is hardly of any value for the management. But because of the crisis, managers are increasingly asking themselves how we can continue to retain customers while cutting costs.”
FeelingStream is seeing an increased need for their speech-to-text and analytics products in neighboring Finland, but according to Mr. Ilison, the necessity is felt everywhere.
“As most customer relations have moved online, companies can no longer rely solely on feedback from customer support or sales personnel. And what we offer is analysis that is much more precise, fast, and customisable than surveys or feedback from them. This allows managers to make precise decisions,” Mr. Ilison assures.
Kaspar Korjus, co-founder and CPO of Pactum, a start-up that offers automatically negotiated contracts on a massive scale, just recently announced cooperation with Walmart, a retail giant. Although the crisis creates pressure for many, Mr. Korjus is also positive about the influence of the crisis on their business.
“In retail, margins are under heavy pressure with customers asking for COVID-19 related discounts. The only viable way to maintain profitability is to cut costs and the least painful way to lower costs is to reduce input costs. This is why procurement people are suddenly in the spotlight and have to renegotiate existing agreements. And this is where our AI can help.
Mr. Korjus sees the benefit of AI in two ways. “Tools like AI can automate the more mundane roles, allowing people working within procurement to do higher value, more customer-centric roles. Also, freeing up procurement teams from the mundane tasks allows them to perform higher-value negotiations increasing revenue and profits,” he says.
Will it have a permanent effect?
As with every crisis-related change, what interests managers is how much of it will hold post-crisis (whenever that will come). To start with, do people actually like online-interaction?
“Immediately after the crisis started, we saw a 25% increase in calls to customer support. This went back down in a couple of weeks. But inquiries through chat and e-mail have gone up two-fold… and this hasn’t declined,” says Markus Lippus.
What all representatives shared was the idea that a considerable variable to influence the persistence of these changes is not the technology, but the speed in which companies are able to update their process management. Only this will assure that the experience that people have with their digital interaction partner is satisfying and leads to changed habits.
“50% is about updating technology, but the other 50% depends on the internal processes of the company. We can set up an AI in a couple of weeks, but in a large company to ensure that the technology is linked to processes and these are functioning well, takes considerable time and effort. Those that can accomplish this the fastest will have an edge over the others” says Mr. Lippus.
Hence, AI can do a lot. But people have to catch up.
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