• March 1, 2015
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

The 2015 CRM Rising Stars: IBM's Watson Brings Cognitive Computing to Customer Support

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IBM first introduced its Watson supercomputer on the TV game show Jeopardy! in 2011. The technology was hailed as a groundbreaking platform that would usher in a new era of computing capable of interacting using natural language, quickly processing vast amounts of disparate forms of big data, and learning from each interaction to improve results over time. But after it trounced two of the show's greatest champions, Watson seemed to languish for a while.

Finally, in May 2013, IBM introduced its Watson Engagement Advisor, designed to simplify some customer interactions that would otherwise have been handled by live agents. A key element of the Watson Engagement Advisor is the Ask Watson feature, which enables customers to pose questions via instant message, text message, email, Web chat, or a dedicated app on their mobile phones. Watson's cognitive computing quickly returns answers using informed, evidence-based reasoning.

Almost immediately, businesses took notice. ANZ Banking Group, Nielsen, and Royal Bank of Canada were among the first to jump at the chance to pilot the technology.

Research firm Gartner also took notice, and cited Watson in its Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2014. Gartner also predicted that by 2017, 10 percent of all computers would be able to learn from past interactions, as Watson does.

But despite strong interest early on, the Watson Engagement Advisor remained largely untested by a broad consumer audience until October 2014, when IBM introduced several Watson-powered applications developed by start-ups and ecosystem partners.

The commercial viability of these apps brought instant credibility to Watson, which IBM broke out in January 2014 as a separate business unit backed by an investment of more than $1 billion.

To further demonstrate its commitment to advancing the Watson technology as a customer service tool, IBM in June announced a strategic partnership with Genesys that would see the IBM Watson Engagement Advisor integrated with the Genesys Customer Experience Platform. The integration, according to the two companies, would benefit agents and customers alike. Self-service customers could get their answers via Watson, and call center agents could use Watson to search for answers to customers' queries. In either case, Watson could offer a few answers to each question and provide confidence scores for each. If the customer or agent determines that a response isn't helpful, machine learning takes over to improve results over time.

The Genesys partnership "marries the cognitive capabilities of Watson with a well-entrenched domain expert in the contact center space," Stephen Gold, vice president of IBM Watson Group, said in a statement at the time.

IBM further strengthened the technology a few months later with the release of Watson Analytics, a natural language–based cognitive service that can provide instant access to powerful predictive and visual analytic tools for businesses. IBM Watson Analytics, which is available as a cloud-based service, automates the tasks of data preparation, predictive analysis, and visual storytelling. Watson Analytics provides business professionals with a unified experience and natural language dialogue to quickly source data, cleanse and refine it, discover insights, predict outcomes, visualize results, create reports and dashboards, and explain results.

IBM followed this in November with the announcement of a partnership with Twitter to bring Twitter's wealth of social media data into IBM Watson Analytics and IBM's Experience One platform that provides engagement and sentiment data for sales, marketing, and customer service departments.

Deborah Dahl, principal at Conversational Technologies and chair of the World Wide Web Consortium's Multimodal Interaction Working Group, is optimistic about the future of IBM's Watson. "I believe Watson will become a central technology in future customer engagement applications," she says.


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