Conversation as a Platform – Why it Matters.

Article originally posted on LinkedIn pulse.

This week at Microsoft’s Envision conference and last week at their Build conference, Microsoft CEO Sayta Nadella kicked off the event with a high level vision for the company.  There was lots of good stuff in there but one area that is particularly fascinating Satya called ‘Conversations as a Platform.’  It will change the way that companies communicate with their customers and that means it’s interesting for the sales ecosystem.  It’s going to impact the sales acceleration market by creating new and innovative ways for buyers and sellers to communicate that’s faster and more personalized.

So what is ‘conversation as a platform’?  

To answer that question, I think it’s helpful to take a step back and think about how we interact with people and apps today.  There is generally two paradigms of applications that we use on our computers and devices.  The first is we communicate with other people via many communication applications.  This includes text messaging, voice calls, all forms of social media that are all designed for people to people communication.  These applications are designed around using language because that’s how humans communicate and we’re very good at it.  We even create new language for more efficiencies as we see on instant messaging and Twitter.  We all learn these shortcuts to allow us to communicate even quicker – LOL, TTYL, ROFL, #yourfavoritecommenthere, etc.

The other application paradigm is performing work in applications which might be websites, mobile apps, desktop apps and all the other tools that we use to instruct our devices on specific actions that we want or need to perform.  For example, write a document, book a flight, search the web, buy things and the millions of other things that we use do with our devices.  These are the tasks that typically does not involve communicating with people.

These two application paradigms don’t interconnect very well today.  An example is we might discuss with friends on social media that we are going to book a trip to mexico.  When it comes time to book the trip we have to use a web site that has no context of my plans.  Turns out there is a lot of context on the trip already available in the communication app.  So an interesting questions is what if we could merge these worlds together?  What if applications could start performing tasks based on interacting as ‘part’ of the conversation and not an isolated activity.  The app would wake up in certain situations to know that you want to go to mexico and then just asking a few basic questions to do it on your behalf?  As if it was just another participant that has been added to the conversation.  No web site necessary and seamlessly integrated into your conversations.  That is product of ‘conversation as a platform’ and it’s going to be important.

The ubiquitous ‘social feed’ sets the stage

Most of our digital communication experience today revolves around the concept of a feed.  It’s a time based interaction pattern where we can look into the past and catch up on what’s happened and an easy way for us to post something new.  This is instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, many more and yes Tellwise has a feed too.  It can be real time (synchronous) or get to it when you can (asynchronous).  The pattern is largely the same in both cases. The feed is simple to understand, simple to use and amazingly addictive because it’s alive and changing.  Facebook spends a lot of time thinking about how to keep your feed fresh and full of things that will cause to you to click, participate and further feed the system (excuse the pun).

It has turned out to be a very natural and engaging way for us to communicate with just about everyone.  From family and intimate conversation, to friends, to coworkers and colleagues all the way to complete strangers (think Twitter).  Since we communicate so much using these tools it turns out they also have a lot of context.  There is a ton of data that we have shared in these communication apps that can be used in very interesting ways.  We need applications to become an active participant in the conversation at just the right time.  Politely inserting themselves and asking if we need help with a certain contextual task.  This is the chat bot and it’s received some attention from people like former Evernote CEO Phil Libin.

The role of bots and agents

We are already somewhat familiar with personal assistants or agents like Siri, Cortana and even Alexa (assistant in Amazon Echo).  They respond to questions and can even perform actions on our behalf.  Cortana is leading the way in my opinion.  We use natural language to interact with these agents just as if there was a real person on the other end and they are getting better everyday thanks to the power of the cloud.  Cortana learns from every interaction.  These agents are essentially connected to us and an increasing amount of our data.  They can know a lot of things but it’s difficult for them to perform a wide variety of actions our behalf because that involves integrating with customer applications.  That’s where bots come into the equation.

A bot is an application specific module that understands very specific commands that can be directed using natural language.  You might interact with a bot from Expedia that understands how to book travel.  This bot knows all of the information that is required to book travel and can access some of it automatically on your behalf or can also ask questions to complete the data.  The questions could be asked of you directly or your personal assistant like Cortana.  The point is the task is completed using natural language within a communication style application.  It doesn’t require you to go to a separate website that has no context to complete the task.  This is a new world of bots and agents working together on our behalf.

A new world of customer engagement

As a provider of a customer communication platform this is super exciting for us geeks at Tellwise.  Sellers send a significant amount of their time communicating with customers.  They do this via email, phone, instant messaging, live presentations and all of those interactions can be enhanced with agents and bots.  For the seller, we can insert more information and more context into the conversation.  As the communication unfolds our bots can add additional context about the customer, their company, relevant industry events and more.  We can use agents to more efficiently schedule follow up actions and potentially follow up meetings.  We can also produce much richer analytics about the overall interaction pattern and what’s working with customers and what’s not working.  It’s a new world of interaction data and we get it largely without having to change how we communicate.  The platform simply observes and learns.  It’s going to be an awesome journey.  Thanks to Microsoft taking a leadership position on what is sure to be a new paradigm shift.

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