When Amazon launched its Alexa for Business (AFB) initiative last year, one of the launch partners invited early on was Tact.ai — a startup focused on changing the way sales people interact with their CRM systems using their voice. In fact, they launched the first conversational CRM skill for AFB. And just last week Amazon, along with Microsoft and Salesforce, were part of Tact’s series C funding round of $27 million.
Since I’m pretty all-in when it comes to CRM and voice assistants and the potential the two have to change customer engagement, I was glad to speak with Tact.ai’s founder and CEO Chuck Ganapathi to hear his thoughts on these subjects.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. To hear even more of the conversation, check out the video below. You’ll notice in the video it’s just Chuck answering the questions. There was a little trouble on my end with audio, but thankfully, and most importantly, Chuck looks and sounds great, so check it out!
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Small Business Trends: Tell us about the platform shifts you see taking place today that is driving the move to voice interfaces into business applications?
Chuck Ganapathi: The amazing thing about the world we live in today is that it’s a perfect storm of two major platform shifts. The first one is the shift to edge devices. We’ve spent the last couple of decades bringing enterprise software applications from on premise data centers to the cloud and that’s created massive value for companies and built great companies like Salesforce.com. I think what we’re seeing now is that computing is now moving back into the edge because there are these devices that are with us every day. Whether it’s your phone, which is now a computer, your watch, which is now a computer, your alarm bell, your camera, your car is now a computer.
All of these devices bring computing right to the edge and I think that has allowed us to do things that we couldn’t have thought of before. Case in point, Uber. Think about how Uber has removed friction from your day-to-day life of just hailing a cab, but using the edge device called your phone, and the sensor called your location to be able to find a car and a driver that’s closest to you. The second major platform shift that’s happening is the one that we call artificial intelligence, of course, but more specifically inside of that, this major wave called artificial intelligence, is the way we interact with computers.
We’re going into an entirely new way of interacting with computers that’s just lowering the bar. For example, my three and a half year old son can just ask Alexa to play his favorite song and Alexa will play it. He can’t even read or write. Forget about using Windows. I think that is a transformation that’s happening right now. We’re seeing it. It’s already here. People have Alexa’s in their homes. We have Siri on your phone and this notion of using voice and other more natural ways of interacting with computers, as opposed to forms on a database, I think is a major shift.
You take these two things and put them together, I think you have the perfect storm to reimagine what CRM should really, really be. This has been a problem that I’ve thought about for many, many years, because as you know Brent, I’m a product guy, and it hurts me to no end when I find … When I talk to salespeople and they say, “Chuck, you’re a really nice guy, but I got to tell you I don’t like the products you build.” It’s because we’ve never really focused on the end user. If you think about the birth of CRM, which really happened with Tom Siebel coming out of Oracle and starting this whole industry, it’s the first time that we were able to take what was on paper, which is a Rolodex or a forecast report, and bring it into a database.
Small Business Trends: It seems like voice assistants would be helpful for creating higher CRM adoption for sales folks.
Chuck Ganapathi: I agree. I don’t think any salesperson wants to be sitting in front of a computer imputing data. I think there’s an opportunity to fundamentally reimagine the relationship between the seller and the systems that they have to use. Voice is critical. It really started with Siri and the ability to dictate messages and we all started doing that. With an SMS, you could just tap on your dictation icon, the mic icon on your keyboard, and start dictating a message.
In 2012, when we released the first … Or 2014 when we released the first version of Tact on the mobile app, we allowed our users to leave voice notes. You come out of a meeting, the assistant will remind you that you just finished a meeting with Brent Leary and it’ll ask you if you want to record any notes, and you can just tap on the microphone and leave notes. That was an amazing achievement for 2014, but we’ve come a long way since then. 2014 was also the year that the first Echo device was released.
Small Business Trends: What role has Amazon’s Echo and Alexa played in moving adoption of voice assistants into business?
Chuck Ganapathi What I think the Echo did for people was move the conversation, no pun intended, from dictation, which has been around for some time, to voice commands. Because now, you can just say, “Hey Alexa,” without looking at your screen, without tapping on the microphone icon on your keyboard on your iPhone or Android phone.
You can just say, “Hey Alexa, turn on the lights. Hey Alexa, play a song,” and it’ll do something for you. I think that’s the next evolution of where we’ve come with voice and it’s … We were one of the first ones to recognize it. I still remember the first time I saw the Echo device and immediately I said, “We’ve got to get Tact on this.” I went to my engineering team and I put an Echo device in the conference room and I said, “Folks, how do we get Tact working on this?” They were inspired by it and it was actually right before … It’s when I was doing some Christmas shopping, and I found the device, and brought it into work, and a couple of our engineers actually got so inspired that they worked right through Christmas break, and early January they showed me a prototype. That was the beginning of our journey.
For the last two years, almost three years, we’ve now been perfecting that platform and evolving that platform, because it’s not just about going from dictation to voice commands, which Alexa’s very good at, but it’s moving to the next level that we call voice intelligence which is really about conversations.
What we promise to our users is we’re going to give you a digital assistant, an AI assistant that’s the next best thing to having a human EA, or a personal assistant. You obviously can’t afford one for every salesperson, but what if you could give them an AI assistant? That’s what we promise. In order to fulfill that promise, that assistant has to be human friendly. You don’t want it to be too human-like. But you want this to be human friendly.
You want the assistant to be able to understand the mistakes that I make in my conversation. Understand my context and if I say, “John Hancock,” I don’t mean the person, I mean a company called John Hancock that I’m speaking to. I think that is really about using AI, artificial intelligence, not just speech recognition, but really artificial intelligence and conversational flow to be able to do that. We think we can use AI to make the human a super human and allow them to do these kinds of things with the help of their assistant. For sellers, I think it’s the best product that has come out in the market since probably the Blackberry, right? You remember how much they fell in love with the Blackberry. Our goal is that every salesperson in the world, just used to be a Blackberry or a crackberry addict, we want them to be using Tact and selling in a frictionless way.
Small Business Trends: Will business app vendors have to eventually add voice interfaces to their applications?
Chuck Ganapathi: I certainly think so. I think especially as consumers get more and more comfortable with voice experiences in their personal lives they’re going to demand that. If you don’t have the ability to provide that, I think you’re going to be at a disadvantage in the marketplace. I do think companies will be under increasing pressure to provide voice experience, but also like we talked about, the messaging experience. That’s something … To me, they’re just two sides of the same coin.
We talk a lot about messaging and they’re a lot of messaging companies that talk about internal collaboration, and water cooler, and increasing transparency in the organization, and all of that is great. But at the end of the day, messaging should also be about getting things done. If it’s a customer that wants to check on their balance, or do a transaction with you, to be able to do that through voice or through sending a text message, your employees want to be able to do that as well. At the end of the day, what people really want is to get deals done, get work done, not just be having a water cooler conversation.
Small Business Trends: Look out a year or two from now. Where do you think we’re going to be with voice, particularly when it comes to sales, CRM in the enterprise?
Chuck Ganapathi: Well, I think voice, especially in CRM and in salesforce automation, is going to become one of the primary modes with which people will interact with systems. It’s not just about CRM, one thing that we’ve learned from our experience is that when you’re trying to become a digital assistant, an AI-powered assistant for your salesperson, you have to think very differently about what that is. It’s not about adding a voice interface to your database. Look, every enterprise software vendor, I can guarantee you, is thinking about how to introduce voice interface to their app, right? Every enterprise software vendor has currently got a project going on, “How do I add voice layer on top … A voice assistant, or a voice interface on top of my app?”
But that’s the wrong way to think about it, is our belief. When you’re trying to be an assistant, you have to be thinking about the user’s entire workflow. My job as a salesperson doesn’t start and end with one database, whether it’s your CRM database. It cuts across your email, your calendar, you may be prospecting on LinkedIn. Yes, of course, you’re looking up information in CRM and you’re entering information in CRM, but you’re also looking for insights coming from another third-party analytical engine. One example is our customer Dell uses us as an interface layer on top of an analytical data warehouse, because that’s where all the customer insights are. Because the reality in large enterprises is that customer data is spread across multiple systems. Just adding a voice interface to one of those systems doesn’t solve the problem. You have to think about it from the user’s standpoint and be persona-centric.
If I’m an assistant for a salesperson, you first have to understand what is the salesperson’s life look like, day-to-day work life, what systems and what people does it touch, and you have to be able to weave all of them together into one single experience. That experience has to be available on voice, has to be available through messaging, and of course and sometimes an app is a better experience. I can’t use my voice, if it’s crowded. I’m in an elevator. I don’t want to talk to it. I just want to be able to look at my calendar and see I have three meetings coming up. Because vision and your eyes are very good at processing information and sometimes faster than using voice. You have to think about a multi-model experience, between touch, text, and talk. That’s what we call it, right?
An app experience, or a screen experience, a voice experience, and sometimes a messaging experience. Your assistant should be able to operate on all three so you can just talk to your assistant, you could send a message to your assistant, or you can look at your assistant through an app and get things done.
Small Business Trends: When will they have to do this?
Chuck Ganapathi: Oh, I think you’ll see almost all enterprise apps will come out with some sort of a voice announcement this year. That’s my prediction. Every single one of them, right? Mark my words. Will have a voice announcement this year. But like I said, like I said, this is a problem that is not a vertical problem. It’s not adding voice to one database, one system, one vertical silo. It’s thinking about it horizontally as a layer of assistance, as a layer of experience that cuts across multiple systems where it really automates my workflow as a human being and makes me do my job better.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.