Technology that dehumanised communications can now rehumanise it: Twilio

Software played a part in taking away the human component of communications, but now it's bringing it back and businesses should get on board, according to Patrick Malatack, VP of Product Management at Twilio.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

Communication is broken, according to Twilio's VP of Product Management Patrick Malatack, who thinks the root of the problem is that businesses are overlooking the fact that their customers are human.

Speaking at StartCon in Sydney, Malatack said there's a belief among businesses that personalised communication experiences are not scalable, that you can't humanise communications and serve a wide customer base at the same time.

"That's no longer the case. The same technology that created a lot of this inhumanity for us is now actually enabling us to build more human experiences," he said.

The chatbot wave that hit Silicon Valley, Malatack said, is all about humanising customer communications by merging artificial intelligence and programmable communications and creating a single customer interaction point.

"I always joke that Twilio was into bots before bots were cool," Malatack said, pointing out that Twilio, a cloud communications company, has been around for almost a decade.

He told ZDNet interactive voice response (IVR) technology was, in many ways, the first chatbot.

"You would call a phone number, you'd say something, and you would be able to navigate through different automated business workflows," Malatack said. "Now we're seeing those same types of business workflows that previously occurred on voice now occurring on messaging as well."

The reason why chatbots are the craze right now is because it enables two-way conversations, Malatack said. With chatbots, consumers can respond to notifications that businesses send and complete tasks through a variety of messaging channels.

For example, chatbots can allow customers to respond to a flight delay alert with a rebooking request.

"A lot of it is the same stuff we built in the past, but we're now applying those interaction paradigms to messaging," said Malatack.


Patrick Malatack, VP of Product Management, Twilio.


When it comes to communicating with customers, Malatack said there are four key mistakes that businesses make. The first is not communicating via channels that customers prefer at particular times to solve particular problems. For some enquiries, phone calls make sense, while for others they can be quite intrusive, he said.

"We as humans choose different channels to communicate with different people and around different types of problems. For example, with my brother, it's always text messaging. For my mum, it's always a phone call. If I text her, she'll never reply," Malatack said at StartCon.

"Businesses need to do the exact same thing. You need to be able to communicate with your customers over the channel that they prefer, not the channel that the business prefers. If it's voice, fantastic. If it's messaging, great. You ought to be able to build those experiences into your applications."

The second mistake is not using context consistently across all communication channels.

For example, an app may not provide the customer with the capability to complete a certain task, such as rescheduling a flight. The app might direct you to a phone call with a customer service representative to whom you have to provide all your identification and travel details before the job is done. In such a case, the context is lost.

"The app has context. It knows what flights you're travelling on, it allows you to drill into specific details ... But as soon as you want to make a change to your flight, you press the talk to the agent button and what happens? We get thrown out of the app ... and we're sent into a regular phone call. All the context of that application experience is completely lost as soon as we leave that app," Malatack said.

"Now we're fumbling around. We're navigating through a complex IVR. The IVR asks us for our frequent flyer number and finally we get to talk to a human and what do they do? They ask you for your frequent flyer number [and to] verify your identity. I started from an experience in an app where I was logged in and it knew exactly who I was, it knew exactly what flight I was having a problem with."

Malatack, who joined Twilio five and a half years ago, said these are the type of scenarios that customers experience on a daily basis, impacting their perception of, and relationship with, the business.

"When we communicate with other people, we use context. We have a caller ID, we know who's calling. We know if it's a holiday. We know if it's late at night. We know when someone is interacting with someone. And as soon as we pick up the phone, we know by the tone of their voice that something's urgent, if there's a problem," Malatack said.

"Most importantly, we don't ask other humans for unnecessary information. We don't ask them three times for their frequent flyer number. We only ask them for the information that makes sense at the right time. Businesses need to do the same thing."

The third mistake businesses make when communicating with customers is not using colloquial language.

"One of the common failures you see is businesses exposing their error codes to customers," Malatack said. "You know, 'due to PPS70, this cannot be processed'. Talk to folks like humans talk to folks. Tell them there are no rooms available if that's what the error message means."

Lastly, Malatack said businesses need to not put customers on hold.

"If you find yourself putting your customers on hold, you are doing it wrong," he said. "Treating your customers with respect really means respecting the most important thing that they have and that's their time. New modalities like messaging are ideal for doing asynchronous communication. There's no need for hold. Hold is asynchronous communication over a synchronous channel."

The most successful companies today are the ones that humanise and personalise communication experiences, Malatack said, adding that luxury brands have caught onto this earlier than most businesses.

However, luxury brands also attach a hefty price tag to the delivery of personalised experiences.

Malatack said software, on the other hand, has the power to cost-effectively connect customers to the right person at the right time with the right information.

Twilio has experienced a significant amount of traction in the Australian market, according to Malatack, boasting customers such as Airtasker, Atlassian, OneGov, and Fixed Price Car Service among others.

Companies like Uber, Airbnb, Stripe, Zendesk, Coca Cola, and ING bank are also among the 34,000 customers that have built their communication capabilities on top of Twilio's platform.

Malatack told ZDNet that the company has been investing heavily in the Asia-Pacific region in the last two years, having opened up offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, and established a sales team in Australia.

He said Twilio has seen similar dynamics in the Australian market as it has seen in the US and Western Europe, and that such similarities make Australia a compelling market for the company.

"The companies here are really empowering their teams and giving their developers the ability to build, integrate, and make what is essentially purchasing decisions for their organisation," Malatack said. "Empowered developers that are able to embed communications into their applications and services can build better applications and services."

Twilio's cloud platform focuses on the fundamental modalities of human communication -- such as messaging, voice, and video -- and provides developers with the tools required to customise interactions.

Twilio brought the tepid IPO market back to life in June, marking the first US tech IPO of 2016. The company raised raised $150 million with a share price of $15, above its $12 to $14 per share range, pegging Twilio at a market value of $1.2 billion.

The logic that drove the company to list on the New York Stock Exchange was the idea of building greater trust, Malatack said. Providing full transparency to existing and prospective customers helps build trust, and more credence is usually given to providers of products and services when they're public companies.

"The number one thing we sell is trust," Malatack said. "There's no better way for your customers to trust you than to know exactly how much money you have in the bank and see the business in a detailed view. The IPO was a logical next step for us to provide this level of trust."

Twilio delivered solid third quarter earnings and revenue. Total revenue was $71.5 million for the third quarter of 2016, up 62 percent from the third quarter of 2015 and 11 percent sequentially from the second quarter of 2016.

The company also launched a new subscription-based enterprise plan in September with what it claims to be higher levels of security and granular admin controls.

The Twilio Enterprise Plan was designed to help developers in enterprises move their communications to the cloud with the same degree of ease as smaller startups.

"Enterprises have to balance the desire to be more agile and innovative with the need for more stringent security and controls," said Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson in a statement in September. "With the Twilio Enterprise Plan, enterprises are free to innovate at the speed of startups while ensuring compliance with their more rigorous policies."

Malatack communicated a similar sentiment, saying one of the big trends Twilio has noticed among enterprises is their increasing willingness to adopt agile and DevOps principles in the development and delivery of products and services.

"ING bank, for example, has embraced the agile movement," Malatack said. "They're completely retooling their contact centre -- they call it contact centre 2.0. They're retooling their organisation to build and deliver software the same way a startup or smaller organisation does."

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