On April 12, Microsoft announced that it will acquire speech recognition company Nuance for about $19bn, including debt. The Nuance acquisition represents Microsoft’s largest acquisition since it bought LinkedIn for more than $26bn in 2016.
Primarily, the deal reaffirms Microsoft’s desire to enable digital health and data-driven care models. While the acquisition of Nuance will solidify Microsoft’s technological and AI expertise in healthcare, it will also provide AI-powered customer engagement solutions across Interactive Voice Response (IVR), virtual assistants, and digital and biometric solutions to companies globally across all industries.
The addition of Nuance’s verticalized conversational AI applications, biometrics solutions, and speech analytics tools will advance Microsoft’s existing intelligent engagement portfolio and journey orchestration. This expertise, paired with Microsoft’s cloud platforms, including Azure, Microsoft 365, and Dynamics 365, will help to deliver next-generation customer engagement and security solutions.
Digital customer care is the new standard
Together, conversational AI and customer engagement platforms will reduce complexity and enhance customer experience
Every member of an enterprise has the potential to engage with a customer. This expanded scope of customer interactions across touch points and the enterprise requires tools that can help drive consistency and scale to any employee that interacts with a customer. Conversational AI is poised to enable such objectives, with the potential to change how enterprises conduct business and accelerate digital transformation and automation.
The market recognizes the growing significance of conversational engagement. According to Omdia’s ICT Enterprise Insights Technology Drivers and Priorities survey of 4,900 IT professionals, a combined 63% said they have strategic or minor investments planned for intelligent virtual assistants. Additionally, Omdia’s AI Market Maturity study shows clear indications that investments in AI technology are proliferating. Five different AI capabilities (ML, chatbots, deep learning, RPA, and voice/speech recognition) are expected to reach penetration rates of 50%+ with respondent companies within the next year. Confidence is also growing, with 71% of respondents who indicated they are “confident” or “very confident” that AI will deliver positive results in the next 12–24 months.
These statistics, coupled with 76% who said “transforming the customer experience” is “significantly more important” or “more important” since the onset of COVID-19 on the relative importance of technology, strengthen the projection that the race to stay competitive will run through technologies that enable automation, customer intelligence, and enterprise cohesiveness.
Nuance powers conversational intelligence
Consequently, conversational AI technologies deployed on enterprise systems of record that can monitor and proactively respond to activity within customer journeys will drive such digital transformations. Customers now expect to interact with brands’ customer care organizations via web-based applications and mobile devices, so enterprises across all sectors are taking a digital approach to their customer care efforts.
In addition to increasing digital experience expectations around self-service and digital assistants, the customer journey itself has changed. The new always-connected customer also expects relevant interactions, offers, and content so therefore their journeys dictate strategy. To effectively optimize customer engagement to meet these objectives, enterprises will need AI-enabled real-time insights to accurately identify customers and understand their behaviors, as well as engage with them in relevant ways. It also requires automating interactions to create frictionless experiences.
Together, Nuance and Microsoft will enable enterprises to expand capabilities across the enterprise with both intelligence and automation for both voice and digital. Nuance’s AI-powered enterprise-grade speech technologies and AI-powered omni-channel customer engagement solutions, including AI, targeting engine, Nuance Transcription Engine, speech recognition and text-to-speech, agent, and natural language processing, recognize human speech and language. They also interpret the meaning of both spoken word and data and apply context and reasoning to each customer interaction.
Nuance takes a digital-first approach with its digital road map
In April, Nuance presented Omdia with its digital roadmap which focuses on automation, connected experiences, human touch, and trust, and is driven by AI-first, digital-first, and asynchronous customer engagement.
This roadmap is predicated on a long history of offering conversational technology. Nuance established its conversational foundation in 2001 when the company transitioned from being an optical character recognition solutions provider to becoming a speech recognition provider by accumulating a significant portfolio of text-to-speech and synthesized speech solutions and expanded that into naturalized dialogue systems and sentiment analysis.
Then in 2012 Nuance launched Nuance Virtual Assistant (formerly Nina), its digital assistant framework for mobile customer experience, and the United Services Automobile Association (USAA) became the first to deploy that for mobile apps. In 2013, Nuance made Nina available to text channels, propelling the development of Nuance’s framework for its Intelligent Engagement platform which offers one of the most pervasive digital assistants for mobile devices. Today, 6,500 enterprise customers use Nina, including FedEx, Albertsons, AT&T, and H&M. As a result, they process 15 billion interactions through the virtual assistant every year, bolstering the notion that conversational AI is table stakes.
Microsoft’s integration of journey orchestration and contact center solutions with Dynamics 365
At Microsoft Ignite in February 2021, Microsoft announced the integration of real-time customer journey orchestration capabilities in Dynamics 365 Marketing as part of the April 2021 release wave 1 updates in Europe and North America. The announcement signaled a move by Microsoft to enable marketing, sales, customer success, and customer service teams to create impactful and customer-focused experiences by unifying customer experience and marketing automation to personalize experiences and engage customers in real time.
To hyper-personalize engagements, Microsoft also announced real-time survey capabilities for Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Voice that enable users to adapt customer journeys or trigger relevant communications in real time. This complements its release of Dynamics 365 Customer Voice in July 2020 that provides a continuous stream of customer feedback including alerts to trigger real-time remedial actions if required.
Then, when Dynamics 365 Marketing combines with Dynamics 365 Customer Insights, Microsoft’s customer data platform (CDP) which unifies and identifies customers, interactions become even more meaningful and relevant. Enterprises can then create customer journey flows based on customer history and preferences.
As Lori Lamkin, vice president, Microsoft Dynamics, told Omdia in February, “The old style of megaphone messaging is not working. Marketing messaging needs to revolutionize. At the same time, we see journey orchestration bringing in marketing teams beyond marketing,” she said.
Microsoft offers programs to accelerate integration of contact center solutions into Microsoft Teams
Another clue that Microsoft views the contact center and customer engagement as critical to enabling end-to-end engagement, can be found with Microsoft Teams. Teams now supports customer interaction work streams by acting as the hub for internal and external customer connections across its modes of communication including chat, video meetings, and calling. The workstreams are aimed at achieving five overarching goals, outlined in Table 1.
To drive the customer journey, Microsoft Teams integrated with leading contact-center-as-a-service (CCaaS) solutions providers through two models. In the Extend model, the contact center solution provider acts as a telephony carrier alongside Microsoft 365 and uses the Teams phone system for all contact center calls. And the Connect model connects CCaaS solutions providers with Microsoft Teams phone system infrastructure to enable configuration, routing, and system insights.
In addition, Microsoft developed the Connected Contact Center for Microsoft Teams Certification Program to provide customers with the assurance that each participating provider’s solution has been tested and verified for quality, compatibility, and reliability.
Finally, Microsoft announced many new releases to Microsoft Customer Service and Voice in February 2021, including:
- Voice-enabled channels build on Microsoft Teams current support for auto attendant/IVR and call queues.
- Voice enabled channels cater for collaboration and information sharing before, during, and after the call.
- A “Calls app” brings dial pad, call history, voicemail, contacts, and settings into a single location.
- Certified Contact Center and Compliance Recording solutions.
Together, Nuance and Microsoft will enable proactive, end-to-end customer engagement
Machine learning, natural language processing, and automation play an important role in intelligently orchestrating content and actions based on individual customer’s context. The most advanced CEPs connect intelligence and automation capabilities to create a genuine orchestration layer across entire customer journeys, irrespective of the front- or back-office department with which the customer interacts. The most advanced can also determine not just the next-best action but also the best moment to trigger the action.
Omdia believes that the upcoming Microsoft and Nuance product releases further strengthen the notion that the eventual integration of Nuance’s AI-powered omnichannel customer engagement solutions with Microsoft Dynamics 365 and customer journey orchestration will create that intelligent and connected layer able to proactively respond to customers’ needs and interact in automated ways to remove friction. Together, they have the potential to change how enterprises interact with customers and conduct business, as the practical applications of journey-based conversational AI take hold.
In a LinkedIn post detailing the intended acquisition, Nuance CEO Mark Benjamin bolstered this prediction when he said, “Together, Nuance and Microsoft will accelerate innovation and continue to advance the next generation of conversational AI solutions as we mutually gain even greater focus, highly specialized resources, and global scale to better serve our customers.”
Widespread deployment depends on a holistic solution
As noted in Omdia Universe: Selecting a Customer Engagement Platform, the main competitive threats in the large enterprise space stem from Adobe, Oracle, Salesforce, and SAP, and from ServiceNow in the customer service/field service area. Although Microsoft primarily intends to bolster its AI expertise in the healthcare category, the Nuance acquisition will also further solidify its positioning as a customer engagement platform leader.
Operationalize the technologies
Despite its leadership positioning, as customers will demand more interactive and personalized digital marketplaces, faster outcomes, and easier access to payment and commerce options, expect a continued expansion of partnerships/acquisitions from Microsoft. A major focus area for Microsoft for achieving leadership in the CEP category will be to operationalize the technologies through its broad ecosystem of channel partners such as Avaya, Genesys, and Verizon Business Services, as well as by creating training and resources for agents and supervisors of clients. Best practices and use cases should address how to bring together all the channels from operations to the front office.
For most vendors, the prevailing conversational AI strategy has been to focus on relatively narrow use cases addressing customer experience and internal efficiency. Broadening conversational AI use cases by applying other powerful technology approaches such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and CEPs, will yield more substantive outcomes, as well as enhance customer experiences and magnify competitive advantages.
Accelerate the digital agenda across 5G-enabled sectors
Omdia partnered with Nuance in 2020 to conduct surveys of global telecoms to determine how they intended to leverage emerging customer experience (CX) technologies like conversational AI and how a 5G network would enhance such capabilities and resulting outcomes. The firms that had already pivoted to intelligent digital assistants said they were connecting with their customers in meaningful ways and as a result, were experiencing a rise in customer loyalty and reductions in revenue losses and churn. Firms that turned to messaging channels like WhatsApp, or chat, and social media as channels for engaging with their customers, have seen large spikes in volume and support.
The role that AI and analytics can play at the network level, coupled with emerging technologies, will enhance customer engagement as 5G takes further hold. As the global race to 5G advances, enterprises will need to continue their digital transformation. To help enterprises successfully automate, optimize, and add agility to their processes through emerging engagement technologies like conversational AI and speech analytics, Microsoft must help forge relationships with and collaborate between public and private-sector entities to build a 5G-enabled digital ecosystem through training programs and testbeds for the development of emerging customer engagement technology.