Ahead of ConverCon today (17 October), vice-president of Product at Irish start-up Webio Paul Sweeney talks about how AI combined with “conversational commerce” will revolutionise business as we know it.

Sponsored by Accenture the Dock ConverCon brings together the world’s leading conversational interface platform players, technology enablers, next level Customer Experience (CX) design experts and the business community to share learnings and experiences around voice-based personal assistants, messaging, chatbots and conversational computing.

Organised by Irish start-up and conversational middleware company Webio, the conference takes place at Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin on 17 October over a full day.

“Nearly 50pc of people who are on Amazon Prime have an Alexa because it makes it so damn easy to order things. It also makes it easy to ask your device to play music, or a video, or a movie”

What is Webio about what is the history of the company?

Man with glasses and a beard.

Paul Sweeney, executive vice-president of Product, Webio.

Webio provides conversational middleware for very large companies in retail, financial services, and utilities. Webio’s founders saw that customers were moving to new digital messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and iMessage, and new voice-first platforms such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home and wondered how companies were going to provide customer service over there new channels. Webio raised €1.75m in a seed round to build a platform to pursue this vision and now employ ten people spread between Dublin, Cork, Belfast and the UK. 

How does conversational technology work and how much of it depends on artificial intelligence?

When you need to “add skills to conversations” it’s like adding a new app on your iPhone. Webio enables companies to add conversational forms, payment platforms, and other applications so that you have one customer conversation from the initial web chat, through the form fill, through the contact centre agent conversation, right through the the messenger confirmations. Webio orchestrates the conversation from webchat, to messenger chat, and then maybe even over to Alexa. As one conversation Webio is able to use artificial intelligence to see if this conversation is likely to result in the outcome that the company is looking for. If you knew a conversation was going to end a certain way in the future what could you do now to change that?

What is the potential size of the market you are addressing?

It’s difficult to get accurate estimates here because you are often disrupting existing markets. For instance, the customer service outsourcing business is worth circa €200bn a year. Call centre software is a $20bn a year market. Application to person SMS alone is a €60bn a year market. When conversational technologies disrupt these kinds of markets the potential upside is interesting enough to pursue!

How does conversational technology fit into the customer success narrative of business today?

Fortunately, this is an easy one to answer. People want convenience. If I can just message a company and find out if they have a product, then press “send it” or say “buy it” and it turns up on my doorstep, then people are going to do that. Nearly 50pc of people who are on Amazon Prime have an Alexa because it makes it so damn easy to order things. It also makes it easy to ask your device to play music, or a video, or a movie. 

Where do you see the technology going?

While you may see chatbots everywhere and in every software very soon, they will quickly evolve into intelligent assistants and intelligent advisors in the near future. We are already seeing glimpses of this in how financial services are evolving. The Capital One bot Erica can help you with transactional interactions, is run over SMS, and is very popular. Apple’s new credit card however wants to help you understand how you are spending your money, and to be super transparent in the trade off’s you are making in your financial decisions. The key here isn’t automation, it’s helping people, both the customer and the employee of the service provider. 

Are you raising funding at present?

As a hi-tech start up you always have to be engaged in fundraising conversations, but it has to be the right amount for the right reasons from the right sources. It’s often said that taking on an investor is like getting married so you better be careful and pick the right partner. The start up journey isn’t easy and there are many ups and downs. You need someone who doesn’t panic at the first bump in the road and who shares your vision for the kind of company you want to become.

What are the biggest mistakes or lessons you have learned so far?

Tough one. Well a definite lesson is that a captain doesn’t learn to sail in calm seas! You need to have leadership that can steer the course. Secondly, the market doesn’t evolve in a straight predictable line. Features you thought would be available on the platforms you rely on might take more years to materialise than you had planned for. Thirdly, invest in your people. They will grow into the opportunity you present them with, and how far they grow may surprise you. Mistakes? I’ll keep that one for the book I write about this whole episode!

What advice do you have for fellow founders?

You have to 100pc believe in the vision of your company. I call this “commiting to the tackle”. If you go into it half-heartedly you are going to break a leg, and not in a lucky way. The second thing I would say is you are going to lose some people on the journey and it will hurt. It takes months to recover from but if you can use this as an opportunity to reset and embed new practices, insource some new skills, and reset the bar you are aiming for, then it can turn out to be a good thing. It’s all in how you look at it. Finally, I would say never give up. If you 100pc believe in the vision, never give up.

What technologies or tools does your team use to stay agile?

We use Zoho a lot in our every day business. We use the Jira product family for managing product and for communications we use Skype and Hangouts. Our most powerful agile technology is a culture of clear, precise and open communications in everything we do. Precision in communications is a real force multiplier.

Main image at top: Webio founders Paul Sweeney, Graham Brierton, Mark Oppermann and Cormac O’Neill.

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 17 October, 2019

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