Customer Relationship Management (CRM). Sounds like a self-help group for frustrated call center employees. Not quite. Rather, it’s a catch-all term for how companies manage customer interactions and data. It covers strategies involving everything from customer service to sales. Each incoming phone call or email may contain an overwhelming amount of data that a mere human in today’s hyper-competitive, tech-intensive environment can’t handle alone. Time to bring in some help with artificial intelligence.
We recently covered how artificial intelligence is helping companies push paperwork in the back office. Now let’s move out of virtual cubical land and into the front office. We’ve found eight startups that say artificial intelligence is the way to approach customer relationship management (or CRM). These various AI platforms or AI agents, as they’re increasingly being called, can reportedly provide real-time insight into customer communication. That includes advice on how to handle a disgruntled call at the service center or how to close a sales deal.
Yes, we know: AI agent sounds an awful lot like chatbots, and you know from our earlier ravings insights that we’re not too keen on chatbots yet. But it seems like we’re the only ones. Take a recent market report by Research and Markets that shows consumer chatbots applications will be worth $744 million in 2022. On the flip side, lost wages due to chatbots and related artificial intelligence platforms in the customer relationship management sector will be more than $262 billion annually by 2021.
Not surprisingly, the eight companies we highlight below play up the technology and downplay any potential job losses. But they genuinely seem to offer some additional value beyond automated chatbots by applying artificial intelligence to various customer relationship management scenarios.
The gurus at CB Insights have been singing the praises of Chorus.ai for a while now. Most recently, CB Insights named Chorus to its 2017 AI 100, a ranking of the 100 “most promising” private artificial intelligence companies in the world. Just this month, Chorus, with offices in San Francisco and Tel Aviv, raked in a $16 million Series A bringing total funding to $22.3 million. Less than six months ago it received its first round of funding: $6.3 million from Emergence Capital, which also kicked in some cash on the latest round, led by Redpoint Ventures.
The Chorus AI platform transcribes and analyzes sales calls and meetings, extracting the best bits using an AI technique called natural language processing. An hour-long phone call can be distilled into a five-minute summary in real-time. Managers no longer need to waste valuable time sitting in on phone calls when they could be engaged in strategy meetings at Kitty’s Bar and Grill. And Chorus can be easily integrated into a company’s customer relationship management software via a simple dashboard.
TalkIQ is another company CB Insights is crushing on of late. It also was named to the prestigious AI 100 club. All we know about its financial is a $7 million seed round in November 2016. It shares the same hometown as Chorus—San Francisco—and seems to offer a similar product.
TalkIQ does like to talk up its AI engine. It claims that its speech recognition for voice calls is twice as accurate as old man IBM Watson and three times better than Google. TalkIQ doesn’t limit applications to sales calls but also includes other types of conversations, such as those to call centers.
Gong.io is another West Coast startup employing AI in similar ways to customer relationship management. It came out of stealth mode less than a year ago with a $6 million Series A in June 2016, led by Northwest Ventures Partners. Its initial focus is on B2B sales.
Gong uses natural language processing and machine learning to recognize important parts of speech based on thousands of hours of spoken sales conversations. That allows Gong to analyze conversations from most audio sources, as well as web conferencing platforms such as Cisco WebEx, GoToMeeting and Zoom, according to a company press release. It then ties the results to CRM software systems such as Salesforce.
Another leading performer in the AI customer relationship management space is Cogito, according to CB Insight’s Mosaic platform. (Mosaic is an algorithm that provides a quantitative score of a private company’s health based on everything from social media trends to financial investments.)
Headquartered across the country from its three competitors above in Boston, Cogito has raised more than $28 million since its first funding round in 2014, though it’s been around for nearly a decade. A Series B that raised $4.1 million in January came less than two months after a $15 million Series B in mid-November of last year. Among the investors is Salesforce Venture, the investing arm of Salesforce. Salesforce has its own bright ideas about AI in customer relationship management, which we discuss below.
Cogito has an academic pedigree, rising out of the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT in 2007. Cogito’s AI platform is predicated on behavioral psychology, and it worked for a number of years with DARPA at the Department of Defense on mental health intervention for military personnel. It’s one of a number of companies imbuing emotional intelligence into artificial intelligence. Cogito’s commercial AI agent listens to phone calls and delivers real-time feedback to a call center employee. It’s a bit like having your mother listen to your phone call. Except, in this case, Cogito isn’t playing out some mommy-issue psychodrama but analyzing speech patterns, tones, speed, etc., to offer insight and guidance to employees.
Early customers of Cogito’s product, including Humana, Zurich and CareFirst BlueCross, report about a 20 percent increase in customer satisfaction, according to BBC News.
Widely described as Google for audio, DeepGram is another CB Insights AI 100 winner. This Silicon Valley startup is literally just getting started. It received $1.8 million in Seed financing last September, led by Metamorphic Ventures and Y Combinator, bringing its total funding to just under $2 million.
Founded by 20-something Noah Shutty and his University of Michigan lab supervisor Scott Stephenson, DeepGram started as a side project for Shutty, according to a story in TechCrunch. Shutty wanted a way to search his personal video and audio files—thousands of hours’ worth of material. So he did what any Millennial would do: he developed a neural-net-based AI. What DeepGram does is spot keywords to provide insights into audio and video.
Founded by former Salesforce executive Chuck Ganapathi, Tact has reportedly collected more than $30 million in investments. The most recent round was a $15 million Series B last December. The company’s backers include Accel Partners, Redpoint Ventures, Upfront Ventures and Microsoft Ventures.
Tact’s angle is an AI-powered sales assistant. Ganapathi told TechCrunch that his company wants to change the way sales people use technology to do their jobs. It comes at the problem in several ways, according to the article. For example, Tact AI uses voice through Amazon Echo to look up individuals on LinkedIn and add them to the Salesforce CRM. A smartphone app can map out clients based on current location, making sales visits more efficient. Customers include GE and Kelly Services.
We’re not sure what’s more surprising about Conversica. The fact that its AI platform revolves around old-fashioned email or that the Foster City, Calif.-based company has raised about $56 million. The most recent round was a respectable $34 million Series B last December, led by Providence Strategic Growth Capital Partners.
Conversica’s AI sales assistant combines natural language processing, which extracts meaning from emails, with natural language generation, which mimics how a human might respond to a two-way email conversation. Conversica CEO Alex Terry told the website Pymnt that the AI assistant literally becomes part of the company’s sales team: “The AI gets a name, a title, an email address, and joins the sales team. Using our AI technology, the AI assistant contacts, engages, qualifies and follows up with sales leads using natural two-way email conversations until that lead converts into a sales opportunity or chooses to opt out.”
Ok this last one isn’t a startup, but it’s the biggest player out there when it comes to CRM. A familiar name to anyone involved in customer relationship management, Salesforce (NYSE:CRM) is a $57 billion publicly traded company that leads the pack in developing and selling CRM software. It’s also adopted the attitude that if you can’t buy it, then build it. Specifically, Salesforce unveiled its own AI platform called Einstein late last year.
Political commentary site / technology news site TechCrunch reported that Einstein gets to work even before a customer service rep picks up the phone: “It uses underlying intelligence to route the call to the best available rep based on known information, and it provides the rep with some background before they even interact with the customer. They also get fed some data on the right side of the customer service window.” However, TechCrunch complained that Einstein may be too brainy for its own good, overloading the customer service rep with so much data that it takes attention away from the customer. No doubt Einstein will learn better manners the longer it’s on the job.
These companies alone represent about $150 million in financing, not to mention a public company with more than 10 years of steady stock growth and more than $6.6 billion in revenue. We may just have to opt in to AI and customer relationship management. It seems like the smart thing to do.
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