IBM Watson Masters Customer Service as Engagement Advisor

By Darryl K. Taft

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—IBM is calling on its Watson cognitive system supercomputer to help enterprises rapidly sift through big data to provide better service to customers and users.

At the IBM Smarter Commerce Global Summit 2013 here, the company on May 21 unveiled its new Watson Engagement Advisor. According to the company, it's a technology breakthrough that allows brands to crunch big data in record time to transform the way they engage clients in key functions such as customer service, marketing and sales.

In essence, Watson's latest personality is that of a cognitive computing assistant that learns, adapts and understands a company's data rapidly, enabling users to have IBM Watson at work quickly, while increasing its knowledge and value over time.

This is the latest flavor of Watson that IBM is pushing out to market. Watson also has been charged with assisting physicians and health care insurance professionals. Watson has been charged with helping doctors diagnose and treat cancer and with helping insurance professionals cut through red tape when processing health care claims. The system has also been in use in financial services operations. The Watson Engagement Advisor will likely not be the last flavor of Watson to be seen from IBM.

Two years after annihilating human competitors on "Jeopardy," Watson's new personality, the IBM Watson Engagement Advisor, is a first-of-a-kind system designed to help customer-facing personnel assist consumers with deeper insights more quickly than previously possible, according to IBM.

Provided through cloud-delivered services and online chat sessions, IBM Watson will empower a brand's customer service agents to provide fast, data-driven answers, or sit directly in the hands of consumers via mobile devices. In one click, the solution's "Ask Watson" feature will quickly help address customers' questions, offer feedback to guide their purchase decisions and troubleshoot their problems.

IBM Watson, via cognitive computing intellect, can proactively engage with a business' customers, and continuously learn from interactions, any time and any place, providing fast, accurate and personalized interactions. The IBM Watson Engagement Advisor will help companies make their interactions count by knowing, delivering and learning what each customer wants—in the context of their preferences and actions—sometimes before even the customer knows it themselves.

According to IBM, some of the factors that make the time right for a Watson advisor for commerce include that millennial consumers will comprise nearly half the workforce by 2020—using paychecks for major purchases that require top-flight customer service—from cars to insurance policies; there will be more than 10 billion mobile devices by 2016, outpacing the human population; and a recent IBM study of 1,700 chief marketing officers revealed that 65 percent of CMOs feel underprepared for the growth of choices that today's empowered consumers have for communications channels, such as smartphones and tablets.

That is why leading brands from a variety of industries are exploring how the IBM Watson Engagement Advisor can help them engage with their customers, including ANZ, Celcom, IHS, Nielsen and Royal Bank of Canada.

"We envision Watson to serve as cognitive assistant, adept and quick at making sense of big data, that can empower our regional bank advisors to better serve our 2 million wealth management clients across the region," Joyce Phillips, CEO of Global Wealth and group managing director of marketing, innovation and digital at ANZ Banking Group, said in a statement. "We are pleased to explore with IBM how Watson can enable smarter, faster financial recommendations—yielding a customer experience that is simple, personalized and steeped in data-informed insights."

Watson's ability to understand natural language is core to its capability as an engagement advisor. Part of IBM's Smarter Commerce initiative, the newest capabilities of IBM Watson, are a natural fit for customer engagement, based on its ability to understand the nuances of human language, process questions akin to the way people think, and quickly cull through vast amounts of big data for relevant, evidence-based responses to its human users' needs.


"Around the globe and across platforms, Nielsen provides insights into what consumers watch and buy—helping marketers engage with their customers in the smartest possible way," Randall Beard, global head of advertiser solutions for Nielsen, said in a statement. "Our work with IBM's Watson is the latest from the Nielsen Innovation Lab, founded to advance research in advertising effectiveness. Watson's unique capacity to uncover insights from big data by simply posing a question in natural language is incredibly powerful. Using Watson, we will explore the ways we can help agencies and their client brands more effectively engage with consumers across devices and improve the impact of their advertising and media plans."

The rise of the digital consumer has spawned a range of online, mobile and social media commerce trends that require businesses to deepen their interactions with customers and transform the way they provide marketing, sales and service. Many consumers expect brands to know them individually, and deliver personalized interactions and self-service options. Business leaders—such as CMOs, customer experience leaders and heads of sales—must transform the way they interact with consumers to build brand loyalty and improve customer service.

These disruptive forces are empowering consumers and raising their expectations of the entire customer experience. This power shift from the seller to the buyer is redefining the term "commerce." Retailers were the first to face the rising power of consumers, but now companies across a wide array of industries such as telecommunications, financial services and others have begun adapting to these changes.

With the latest IBM Watson debut, IBM is enabling clients to better respond to market shifts in real time, automate marketing and transform the way they service their clients, while improving their global brand presence.

"IBM is taking Watson to the masses in ways that positively impact people's lives, from helping doctors improve patient care to helping businesses put consumers first in an increasingly mobile world," Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, said in a statement. "Customer engagement is a natural fit for Watson, which can instantly create a strong bond between who customers are as individuals, and what types of information will help them reach their goals. The end product: Users will come away feeling known as people, empowered as consumers, and engaged as satisfied brand ambassadors who are willing to champion the business to friends and family."

For the first time, consumers will be able to tap into the power of IBM Watson for their everyday needs. The IBM Watson Engagement Advisor "Ask Watson" feature greets, and offers help to, customers via any channel, be it through a Website chat window or a mobile push alert, saving consumers the hassle of performing searches, combing through Websites and forums, or waiting endlessly for a response about the information they need. Calling upon IBM's big data analytics technologies, IBM Watson retrieves data about customers to help ensure interactions are tailored to their needs, and searches its corpus of stored information for the best solutions.

IBM said that since its television debut, the Watson system is smarter, faster and smaller—having gained a 240 percent improvement in system performance, and a reduction in physical requirements by 75 percent. The cognitive computing system can now be run on a single Power 750 server using Linux, transitioning from its original size of a master bedroom to that of four pizza boxes. Businesses that use IBM Watson can have the solution up and running quickly using a cloud computing environment, or deploy the technology on-premise.

Meanwhile, IBM says the state of today's customer engagement leaves much room for improvement. About 270 billion customer service calls are handled annually, with roughly 50 percent unresolved, which for businesses means an increase in cost per escalated call by three times. In hindsight, 61 percent of those calls could have been resolved with better access to information.

Moreover, Forrester's 2012 Customer Experience Index revealed only 37 percent of brands received good or excellent customer experience index scores, while 64 percent received a rating of "OK," "poor" or "very poor" from their customers.

The IBM Watson Engagement Advisor will also help brands manage their existing customer engagement functions, by reducing burdens faced by call and e-service centers that struggle to keep up with skyrocketing demand.


This article was originally published on 2013-05-21