Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Five9 CEO: COVID-19 has ‘turbo-charged’ cloud computing and digitization

The new technology of intelligent virtual assistants will make up for the sins of interactive voice assistants.

"The dual drivers of cloud and digitization have always been there, but now you've got COVID-19 turbo-charging it."

That's how Rowan Trollope, chief executive officer of call center software vendor Five9, explains what has happened to the world of work as a result of the pandemic.

"When everybody had to go home — that's going to be a permanent feature of the landscape going forward — that really exposed the cracks of on-premise systems to not be able to handle those situations well."

"With Five9, it's a Web browser, you can have a Web browser at home, it's really easy."

rowantrollope-g.jpg

"Computers are not going to be good at everything, they're not good at empathy, but they're good at the rote, routine tasks," said Trollope. "That is the work that is absolutely soul-crushing in a contact center," 

Five9

Five9 on Thursday evening reported third-quarter revenue and profit that comfortably surpassed analysts' expectations, and forecast this quarter's results much higher as well. 

A good chunk of what is happening is a "labor shift," said Trollope in an interview with ZDNet following the report. 

If you go to Home Depot to buy a drill, Trollope observed, one talks to a person in a blue shirt, and to return the drill later, you would talk to a second person at the customer service desk. 

Those two individuals are now displaced by someone on the phone or in chat. It's that labor shift in commerce that Five9 has been enabling. 

"A good part of what's driving our business is the overall market acceleration." Trollope thinks that labor shift will never entirely be unwound. "We've got these new habits, and those habits are not going to go away soon."

Five9's financial results, said Trollope, were a result of astute execution to take advantage of that rush to a new paradigm. A big part of that was partnerships, with AT&T and Deloitte, for example, being very larger integrators who are now moving product for Five9.

"This quarter was baked quite a long time ago," said Trollope, meaning, the systems integration work of AT&T and Deloitte had been set up several quarters back and is now turning into a steady stream of new deals.

The other big story of the quarter was the company's purchase for $148 million of 15-year-old San Francisco startup Inference Solutions, which makes intelligent virtual assistant technology.

IVA sounds like IVR, interactive voice response, but Trollope, who himself worked in a contact center and managed teams in the call center, says this new technology makes up for the sins of past technology.

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"This is a technology that has been out there a long time," he observed. "If you've ever called a call center and wound up in one of these IVR trees, it's incredibly frustrating."

"But that was the only technology companies had to scale that businesses, to help customers get some self-service, so their [the companies'] costs didn't go completely out of control," he explained.

IVAs, by contrast, were a "ton of hype," and were actually very hard to do. Large companies such as Verizon Communications were able to build IVAs, but they had to spend a lot of effort on forms of machine learning that were relatively primitive compared to what is available today.

Newer deep learning forms of machine learning have filled the technology gap. "Now, finally, all the pieces have come together, so an average company of twenty or thirty call center reps can do this themselves," he said.

The automation prospects of IVAs come at a propitious time, said Trollope, just as companies have a new need for automation. In the new, accelerated world of taking calls, human operators have been swamped. And so corporations will look to IVAs to take away the most repetitive tasks, to lessen the burden on each human call center agent.

It's not about replacing jobs, said Trollope.

"Computers are not going to be good at everything, they're not good at empathy, but they're good at the rote, routine tasks," said Trollope. 

"That is the work that is absolutely soul-crushing in a contact center," he observed. "One of the biggest costs in the call center is turnover." Trollope recalls taking one hundred calls a week in the call center. "Ninety of them were the same thing, ten were interesting, and your brain turns to mush when you do the same thing over and over again."

"If I could have waved a wand and said, Take those ninety calls of BS I've done before off my hands, I would have waved that wand all day," he recalled. 

"That's the great innovation here, it will make contact center, over the fullness of time, a much more pleasant place to be."