IBM taps Watson for commerce push

Fresh out of medical school, Big Blue's smart supercomputer pivots to marketing -- and takes up residence inside the customer service call center.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

IBM's Watson, the big data and analytics-driven supercomputer that gained fame with a star turn on the game show Jeopardy! in 2011, was first tasked with bringing its intelligence to the healthcare industry.

Now it's taking its smarts to commerce and the supply chain.

The U.S. company announced this morning its "Engagement Advisor," a new service intended to arm customer-facing employees with "deeper insights"—via cloud-based, data-driven analytics and Watson's signature natural language-powered learning engine—to boost customer engagement and improve experience.

ANZ, Celcom, IHS, Nielsen and Royal Bank of Canada are already using the new tool.

Speaking this morning at the company's Smarter Commerce Global Summit in Nashville, Tenn., IBM Industry Solutions general manager Craig Hayman (pictured, above right) said that commerce is a $3 billion market waiting to be tapped.

"When someone calls into a call center, the customer has a lot of information, and perhaps the agent has the least amount of information," he said. The difference can be infuriating in the short term and costly over the long term.

Manoj Saxena, GM of IBM's Watson Solutions group (pictured, above left), agreed.

"Service is very much connected to sales, customer engagement and loyalty over time," he said. On one hand, customers are sharing more information about themselves than ever before. At the same time, the quality of service provided to them is going down.

"Customers are saying, I'm sharing more with you, but I'm getting less service from you," he said. "[Watson] can sit in the hands of the customer through a mobile phone or tablet or used by a customer associate—both modes of interaction."

IBM's goal is to get Watson up and running in commerce situations in six weeks, half the time it took to get its healthcare application online. Tangible improvements are expected in six months.

Commerce is "a very rich area for us to go after," Saxena said, with more "information-intensive industries" to come, such as insurance, banking and telecommunications.

"Expect more IBM Smarter Planet solutions powered by Watson," he said. "Watson for everyone."

There are enormous amounts of data being generated by people, machines and systems, he said. It is IBM's mission to take that and put it in context. "Businesses are dying of thirst in an ocean of data," Saxena said.

IBM has 10 customers already on board; to drum up more business, it plans to start discussions with the chief executive officer or chief operating officer of a company, then move to the chief marketing officer.

"For most CMOs, customer experience remains the priority," Hayman said. "Leading marketers emphasize customer service interactions, connecting the CMO to the call center. Leading marketers use big data, become cross-company brand stewards and target customers where they are."

The commerce venture should go more smoothly than the healthcare one because the use case is "significantly simpler," Saxena said.

"You're talking about a whole different scale of the corpus with which Watson has to work," he said. In addition, the language used in the commerce environment is "much more natural" than the terminology used in medical situations.

IBM's pitch, of course, is that Watson's utility can keep customers happier. And that's where the monetary value is generated, the executives said.

"Call centers today are seen as cost centers," Hayman said. "With Watson you can convert a cost center to a strategic asset to serve customers."

"More engaged customers spend three times more money than the average customer and spend two times more money," Saxena added. "The rewards for doing something about this is important to your top line and your bottom line."

And perhaps your health.

"Many call centers [today] increase your blood pressure as you're put on hold," Hayman said, chuckling.


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