Five9 CEO: AI software for call centers 'selling like hotcakes'

The technology is finally good enough to automate a lot of mundane work such as password resets.
Written by Tiernan Ray, Senior Contributing Writer

AI is a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" in call centers, says Five9 CEO Rowan Trollope. Companies are spending half a trillion dollars on call center automation software to produce experiences that no one likes, he says. AI has the power to change that. 


Call center software pioneer Five9 has a number you can call -- 915-f-i-v-e-9-a-i -- to hear the stentorian voice of a call agent. It can tell you jokes, and it sounds much more natural than a typical interactive voice response system. You can ask it things like, "Tell me about that great sounding voice you have?" 

The call agent will reply, "My voice was created from a voice actor named Vaun." It sounds really real. But it was crafted from a professional actor's voice that was then reinterpreted by a software program using artificial intelligence. 

"That voice is not a recording; that's a real-time AI voice," said Rowan Trollope with evident pride during a demonstration to ZDNet via Zoom.

AI is just one of the tricks the San Francisco-based company has been using to reinvent the quarter-trillion-dollar industry of people taking customer calls, a market that is typically not pleasant for the people calling. 

"This is a generational opportunity," said Trollope. "If you an experience with a big consumer brand, like calling their customer service, it's probably not going to be delightful, generally speaking, and yet businesses are spending a quarter of a trillion dollars to deliver something that basically no one likes."

Trollope spoke with ZDNet following the company's report Wednesday afternoon of Q3 results. The results were better than expected, but the outlook for this quarter's revenue was merely in line with Wall Street's expectations, sending Five9 stock down 16% in late trading. 

Also: RingCentral shares rise as Q4 results, forecast top expectations

Trollope was unfazed by the stock drop. 

"I can't control the machinations of the overall stock market," said Trollope. "All we can do is continue to do what we've always done, which is, in a very boring way, beat and raise every quarter, and continue to excel in these new business opportunities like AI."

Added Trollope, "I think our investors, the long shareholders, the ones who understand our story, they are happy with the performance of the business."

The performance has been lifted by sales to enterprise customers, such as Pizza Hut, with subscription sales rising 51% in Q4. Enterprise subscriptions are the most important metric for quarterly performance for Five9, said Trollope, separate from professional services and voice minutes of usage, billed as separate components. Enterprises make up 84% of the company's trailing twelve-month revenue. 

And large customers continue to spend more. The company in the quarter racked up a record number of "new logos," meaning new customers that spend more than a million. A year ago, the company had 91 customs spending more than $1 million annually, but it exited 2021 with 134 spending over a million. That includes a global retailer spending $4.75 million. A global health insurer spent $3.7 million. A fast-food chain spent $2.5 million. 

"We had these really nice, big, chunky wins, and that is the growth driver."

Among the things attracting large companies, said Trollope, is that artificial intelligence is a tool that is finally ready for primetime in call centers. 

"What we really saw last year, the most interesting thing, is that AI is really getting traction now," said Trollope. "It's selling like hotcakes."

"Because finally, we have technology that can actually automate this mundane, repetitive work in a way that is not harming the consumer experience."

There is still a need for humans in the loop, and Five9 has been hiring like crazy too, among other things, sending people out to work with customers to fine-tune AI programs to handle calls.

"The software itself is highly scalable, where we are scaling is actually on the people side, because this technology is not fully automated in terms of how it deploys," said Trollope. "We have been hiring a lot of people and training them because this is a new area of technology and developing internal tooling."

The human in the loop is critical at the training phase of machine learning. 

Here's how it works: A customer turns on the Five9 AI tech for a week; it will record all calls, cluster them automatically, and sort out what people are calling about. And within calls, a feature of the software called "intent detection" will pick out what a customer is trying to do. That intent is mapped to an answer -- a human field service person from Five9 help to set all that up. 

Then, pre-built, out-of-the-box tasks, called frameworks, are available from Five9 for things such as resetting a password, if that is the intent. "Across every industry vertical, we've mapped a lot of those tasks," said Trollope. 

Five9 is also working on tools internally that will simplify some more of the set-up work that still has to be done by a person. "We are building out tools, so this work can actually be done by a customer themselves."

Thursday morning, Five9 stock had recouped most of Wednesday's decline, down only 2% during the regular session.

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