Unlocking AI

New possibilities are emerging as artificial intelligence becomes more advanced. Comms Business finds out what this means for channel companies and their customers

Artificial intelligence (AI) is already having a profound impact on our everyday lives. From dealing with simple customer queries to analysing data to predict the latest buying trends and customer behaviours, the technology is being used in a multitude of applications, the most notable of which is ChatGPT.

Indeed, many software solutions now come with AI functionally built-in as standard, such as Microsoft’s Copilot, which can summarise documents, write emails or minute meetings. AI can be used to automate, streamline, speed up and make systems and processes more accurate, at a time where budgets are squeezed and businesses are required to do more with less. As a result, AI is transforming the Channel and its delivery of key IT and telecommunications products and services, opening up a host of potential new revenue streams.

"Businesses and organisations in the UK are leveraging AI across various sectors to enhance efficiency, productivity and customer experiences," said Jezabel Foricheur, product manager at Dstny for Service Providers. "AI-powered tools are being used for tasks ranging from communication and customer service to infrastructure management and security. This adoption of AI reflects a growing recognition of its potential to streamline operations and drive innovation."

That's evidenced by the fact that 82 per cent of UK companies believe AI will positively impact their business, while 74 per cent are already adopting the technology, according to Agilitas' latest channel trends research. And the larger the organisation, the more likely it is to focus on AI, the report found.

"Our research found that it was the larger channel businesses looking to prioritise AI over the next 12 months, with half of businesses with over 500 employees rating it a top priority, compared to just 23 per cent of those with under 100 employees," said John Hayes-Warren, CEO at Agilitas. "Even if companies take advantage of open source models, significant investment is required to ensure they are secure and trained correctly, which smaller organisations may struggle to justify."

Added to that, 80 per cent of contact centre and IT leaders believe conversational AI will be a must-have in the near future, while 41 per cent agree those that don't adopt it will fall behind, 8x8’s 2023 State of Conversational AI in the Contact Center report has found. Furthermore, Puzzel's State of Contact Centres 2024 has revealed that 64 per cent of contact centre leaders have identified chatbots as a critical focus area in 2024.

Customer engagement

While AI is predominantly being used in customer engagement, it's also being deployed in other key areas such as cybersecurity, fraud management, content production, accounting, recruitment and business intelligence. But the technology needs to be supported by humans to get the most from it, which is where the Channel’s expertise comes in.

"The Channel has a lot of the technical and sales skills to be able to deliver intelligent AI capable of augmenting the role of organisations’ customer service employees," said Jonathan McKenzie, senior contact centre product manager at 8x8. "If done correctly, this could be an additional revenue source, providing the Channel with the ability to wrap their capabilities into a full managed service contract focused on helping organisations set up, manage and analyse the success of their chatbot functionality."

As well as dealing with routine requests, AI chatbots and virtual assistants can process large amounts of data and determine which calls require human interaction. That way agents and AI can work collaboratively to produce better results.

Although AI has been used as an enterprise solution for many years, it has only now become more widely accessible. This largely takes the form of communication tools with AI-driven summarisation features, cybersecurity solutions driven by predictive analytics and infrastructure optimisation technologies that use the technology for proactive monitoring and maintenance.

The Channel is currently experimenting with AI to improve and make operations more efficient. The most common applications enable businesses to analyse vast amounts of data that can be used to enhance the customer experience via algorithms that analyse voice, detect patterns, predict customer behaviour and generate quality leads.

AI is also being used to reduce operational costs of data analysis and to eliminate human error. By automating these processes, companies can identify potential pinch points in their sales and marketing efforts, and bridge these gaps, as well as freeing up agents to focus on more complex and high-value tasks.

A key area where AI is already making a big difference is speech sentiment analysis, where human emotions can be detected and analysed on calls. This can dramatically improve the customer experience, both saving time and boosting efficiencies.

AI is also being used in video conference cameras, with the chipset and lens working together to capture and process the video feed and make adjustments. It also enables automatic tracking and framing of multiple subjects and real-time translation of video calls.

"AI functions in cameras are still seeing vast improvements and have the potential to revolutionise the way we use them," said Frederik Hornkvist, co-founder of Boom Collaboration. “Tracking, auto-framing and gesture control is where the magic is happening."

Predictive data analytics is another growth area. With the capability to quickly analyse large data sets and identify key patterns and correlations, provide deeper insights, and thus drive CX strategies, the technology has the potential to be a gamechanger for the Channel.

"The automation of processes that AI is supporting not only maximises the availability of data for businesses, but it also enables precise forecasts of future events," said Tiago Cardoso, principal product manager at Hyland. "This capability is offering unparalleled value in various critical data-centric functions such as fraud detection and prevention, customer behaviour analysis, market trend analysis and more."

There's no denying the key advantages that AI can deliver, but the technology is only as good as the data it’s trained on, according to Moorthy Karthikeyan, VP of product management and AI at Vonage. He said that if this training isn’t done properly, it can result in inaccuracies and biases creeping in.

"The Channel helps customers and partners ensure companies are using AI in an ethical, compliant and safe way, and aids customers in overcoming barriers by providing clear insight into what customers need to consider when implementing AI tools, looking to vendors that are transparent about their data development processes and have proper guardrails in place to ensure bias is limited and privacy is maintained," said Karthikeyan. "For example, Vonage follows guidelines and regulations like GDPR to ensure there is a minimised risk of private customer or business data leaking into its AI training datasets and encourages a strong understanding of what data has been used in training any AI models."

Despite the obvious benefits that AI can bring, however, it also presents many challenges. Chief among them is that, given the technology is still in its relative infancy, its capabilities aren't fully known, while many businesses simply don't know where to start with implementation.

"The biggest barrier for companies to adopting AI is a lack of understanding how to get started," said Jamie Marshall, co-founder of Everon. "We have tools like ChatGPT that are easy to use in isolation, and most have already been used, but it's a lot harder to understand how AI can be integrated within systems instead of in individual apps."

While AI's understanding of linguistic semantics has come a long way, it still can't fully replicate human interaction or understanding. Integration with and using data from existing legacy systems is another significant hurdle.

"Like all businesses, having the ability to locate, rationalise, centralise and standardise data from a range of legacy systems has been a major challenge since time began," said Zac Crofts, founder of Team Oz. "The channel operator with a unique position, whereby data transfer and storage is a primary enabling element of the range of products supplied, is in a prime position to capitalise here."

Added to that is the cost of implementation, making the need to prioritise features that deliver the most value paramount. Another barrier to adoption is reluctance and resistance to change.

Security concerns

Another major concern is around privacy and security of sensitive data and intellectual property, who has access to it and how it's being used, with cyber criminals even using AI for their own gain. Consequently, businesses have been understandably cautious about adopting the technology.

"While AI offers immense potential, there are still hurdles in the form of data security concerns, privacy issues and implementation complexity,” said Dstny for Service Providers' Foricheur. “The Channel can again play a pivotal role in addressing these barriers by providing guidance, expertise and tailored solutions. By partnering with knowledgeable channel providers, businesses can navigate the complexities of AI adoption with confidence."

Dominic Trott, director of strategy and alliances at Orange Cyberdefense, said, "Businesses are starting to integrate genAI to make their security operations more agile, with the potential to support elements of security analysts' workloads such as aggregating log data, as well as recommending and potentially even automating responses. There are significant efficiencies to be gained in terms of speed of response to security threats, but also benefits in terms of helping security analysts prioritise the most impactful engagements and reducing the risk of burnout by automating lower value and repetitive tasks."

This presents a prime opportunity for channel companies to become a trusted partner by focusing on providing data security, and ensuring safety and value through specific training customer training programmes to help them improve their understanding of the technology and its challenges and benefits. They can also provide support with implementation.

"The Channel needs to provide concrete use cases that target specific business/industry pain points," said Jeff Green, CEO of Elisha Telecom. "Proof-of-concept demos, trials and definitive case studies also help businesses realise how they can apply generative AI in their businesses."

8x8's McKenzie said that to identify their customers' AI needs, first channel companies need to understand how they operate, and their key infrastructure, pain points and requirements. He added that they also need to consider how the technology will help them, if at all.

"They need to be upfront and honest about how much AI can or cannot help a company," said McKenzie. "It's not a universal cure for all business problems and you certainly don’t buy a solution today, flick a switch tomorrow and then see gold on the next day."

Hilary Oliver, chief marketing and experience officer at Tollring, said that rather than being viewed as a solution on its own, AI needs to be used as a tool and enabler. By presenting it within the context of a business use case, it can enable companies improve their processes and achieve their end goals, she said.

"The Channel needs to train their people and build knowledge on the power of AI," said Oliver. "It is important to understand any concerns that customer may have that stem from the fear of AI and educate on how these concerns can be allayed, focusing on a wide range of clever applications and the practical advantages that can be applied to their specific needs."

When considering the use of chatbots, companies need to understand what their role will be, the data it will access and how it will be integrated. They must also take into account how many enquiries it will be handling. Then they need to train the chatbot on expected customer questions and engagement. That likely requires using conversational AI and a large language model.

"When it comes to the Channel, there's a lot of potential in intelligent AI and chat systems, most commonly in AI-powered chatbots," said 8x8's McKenzie. "Across the Channel, AI is also being used for personalisation tools to analyse customer data and behaviour, for predictive analytics to forecast trends and make data-driven decisions, and for sentiment analysis to track customer feedback. However, it depends on how forward-thinking channel companies are."

Building awareness

Organisations also need to build awareness and ensure compliance through putting the right protocols in place to enable but also safeguard generative AI's adoption. These include setting out a compliant behaviour policy, a process to guide best practice and the deployment of technology to enable privacy and innovation.

"This is where channel partners can step in and use their expertise, capabilities and partnerships to help internal security teams in building the right guardrails," explained Trott from Orange Cyberdefense. "Those guardrails will be appropriate for their organisation's specific context, whether that be advisory services to conceive and design a secure generative AI roadmap, professional services to deploy and integrate new solutions or even managed services to monitor and run those solutions. Further, channel partners can provide support with robust cybersecurity solutions to predict and mitigate evolving threats in real-time or by providing businesses with AI-driven tools that empower them to fortify their digital defences."

Companies are increasingly using generative AI to improve their adaptability and agility, especially within cloud environments. This enables safer user experiences, better productivity and improved efficiency.

"Generative AI has the opportunity to address various pain points experienced by organisations, from automating routine tasks for overstretched IT teams to providing intelligent and actionable data to teams that lack visibility and context into their networks," said Abdul Terry, manager of channel sales at Jamf. "Generative AI learns from vast volumes of data and will give you clear, easy to understand answers in plain English."

Large vendors such as Microsoft, AWS, IBM, OpenAI and Google are leading the way in terms of AI deployment in the Channel. But smaller companies are starting to disrupt the market, packaging plug-and-play services that are easier sell-ins to end customers and remove the time required to continue managing the system for the reseller.

For example, Agilitas has partnered with Solink, a SaaS video security platform that provides businesses with a technology solution to protect against theft and improve their operational efficiency. The latest innovation to its platform is Sidekick AI, which enables users to ask difficult and complex questions and receive timely and appropriate responses, saving a significant amount of time and driving productivity.

Elisha Telecom uses AI to surface customer and agent insights in call centres. This makes it an easy solution to fold into reseller portfolios, thus benefiting the end user without the reseller requiring much technical knowledge.

Evolve IP has developed an AI-powered interactive voice response solution that enables the end user to set up a fully functioning service within five minutes. The technology can quickly assess style and tone of voice, and create a bespoke service. Its AI Studio, which uses PromptVoice, also allows users to generate professional welcome greetings, auto-attendant, interactive voice response and call menu recordings, mixing them with licence-free music to play to queuing and holding callers.

"For us it’s about working with specialists capable of taking advantage of the huge potential AI offers," said Richard Howson, partner account manager at Evolve IP. "It’s about taking away any pain for customers and providing them with a strong and resilient platform to optimise their own business performance."

Tollring has added AI to its latest recording solution, enabling users to gauge customer sentiment and analyse conversations using automation. By providing quantitative insights, businesses can see how their customer service is performing at scale and make any necessary improvements.

Pragma's Engage for iPECS Cloud is a website widget that enables one-click calls, video calls and AI-powered chat. It reads the customer’s website to automate answers to chat questions, using ChatGPT to write natural responses.

"It saves time for the customer and improves the service," said Will Morey, commercial director at Pragma. "Meanwhile, an agent can take control of the chat session any time – so instead of replacing people, it’s helping them. It's a great example of the beneficial ways this technology can be used."

Open source AI

One of the biggest emerging areas of opportunity is open source AI. Channel companies can use the models to build their own AIs or large language models, training them on the relevant business verticals.

Given that the global AI market is forecast to grow by 37 per cent every year until 2030, channel businesses can adopt AI solutions to gain a competitive edge. That could be through using real-time data analytics to respond promptly to market trends and capitalise on new and emerging opportunities, or by training and equipping employees with the right AI skills and tools to drive the business forward.

"Like with any technology, AI brings opportunities for learning and development," said Agilitas' Hayes-Warren. "Collaborating with an experienced partner can help speed up the adoption process and provide integration, training and customised solutions, which will allow teams to utilise the technology to its full potential."

Dstny for Service Providers' Foricheur added, "AI is revolutionising business operations in the UK and its impact on the Channel is profound. By embracing the power of AI, businesses can unlock new opportunities for growth, efficiency and innovation. With the support of the Channel, businesses can also easily navigate the complexities of AI adoption and harness its transformative potential to thrive in the digital age."

This feature appeared in our May 2024 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.

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