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Vonage Executive Interview

Lawrence Byrd, Senior Director of Communications APIs, Vonage

Sheri Greenhaus, Managing Partner, CrmXchange, sat down with Lawrence Byrd, Senior Director of Communications APIs, Vonage. Vonage, a trailblazer in innovative communication solutions, is at the forefront of transforming customer engagement and commerce. With recent announcements in Vonage’s offering for conversational commerce, and cutting-edge AI technology, the company is empowering organizations to connect with customers seamlessly across various channels.

Sheri Greenhaus: Can you tell us what is new at Vonage?

Lawrence Byrd: Certainly. At Vonage, we provide foundational communications applications, APIs, and tools for organizations striving for innovation. Two significant areas of focus are social engagement, particularly in marketing and conversational commerce, and the practical use of AI to enhance customer experiences and processes.

Sheri: Our audience is eager for ideas on enhancing customer satisfaction and streamlining operations. They're also keen on tools to support agents, and AI is top of mind for everyone.

Lawrence: AI is ubiquitous, akin to electricity. The question is, what do we do with it? At Vonage, we've invested heavily in virtual agents and conversational AI, irrespective of the contact center or business infrastructure in place. Our approach is versatile; you can access our solutions as a fully managed service or through self-service access to the underlying tools, such as our AI Studio no-code conversation builder. We provide services from conversational designers to professional services teams, integrating seamlessly with platforms like Salesforce. Our focus is on enriching customer interactions in real-time across the range of communications channels, be it voice, WhatsApp, SMS, or video.

Sheri: Many companies excel at building efficient self-service apps but struggle to foster meaningful relationships with customers. How do we bridge this gap?

Lawrence: One key is transitioning towards more social channels to initiate personalized longer-term conversations. This is where our Vonage Conversational Commerce application platform extension comes into play. This originated from our acquisition of Jumper.ai in 2021 and has evolved to facilitate rich conversations on social media, particularly increasing the effectiveness of online advertising. Take for example, HolidayPirates (case study) a company internationally offering great travel deals. While consumers are intrigued by these offers, they often require personalized interactions to answer questions and seal the deal. Traditionally, companies may have relied on one-way blasts, then expecting customers to navigate through web pages. Now, with our conversational commerce application, these companies can deploy bots to provide tailored information and seamlessly transition customers to live agents, when needed for transaction completion. Message-based marketing also makes it easier for your own customers to re-promote your content, and get rewarded for this, adding a reference-marketing amplifier.

Our Vonage conversational commerce platform offers comprehensive solutions across all social channels. It seamlessly integrates with e-commerce and CRM systems, comprehends inventory and pricing details, and showcases product visuals. It facilitates efficient communication and transactions.

Prominent brands such as Samsung in Asia Pacific and others are diving into direct-to-consumer marketing, aiming to foster relationships with customers upon launching new offers. Leveraging social media platforms like Meta, with WhatsApp, Facebook and Messenger, they create targeted messages and ads to engage their audience.

At the recent Enterprise Connect event in Orlando in March, we unveiled AI enhancements to elevate the user experience. This includes integrating generative AI to empower agents with live assistant support and help marketers create better promotional content. This innovative feature assists agents in refining communication, provides helpful suggestions, and offers chat summarization for seamless continuity. Termed as "co-pilots" or AI Assistants, these capabilities are seamlessly integrated into our conversational commerce experience across messaging channels for effective marketing and sales endeavors. We are also expanding our Vonage Contact Center with similar AI-powered agent assistant support.

Sheri: The customer comes in initially, let's say with Samsung, HolidayPirates or one of the other companies that you mentioned. Is it originally with just a virtual agent?

Lawrence: In this conversational marketing and commerce use case, you typically need to have a combination. You can't just rely on it being automated – this is not a self-serviced customer service interaction; it's a sales interaction, and I'm trying to get you interested in the product. I can certainly get a bot to do quite a lot of the work, because the customer is not randomly coming in to talk about every product I've got. As a marketing organization, I know why they clicked on an ad; therefore, I can have a detailed dialogue about the specific product I am promoting. But if I really want to close the deal, for some percentage of prospects, I may need a live agent. When we work with these companies, they view it as a combination of live and virtual agent. Customers may have the identical question, one of them can self-serve, and the other one gets stuck. For the customers that manage to self-serve, that’s great. Others may have interest but need more of an assist. The question is then, how do I direct them to a live agent quickly?

Sheri: It seems like many companies are doing a similar type of thing. How is Vonage different? Is it that you have APIs into everything, so it is not necessary to rip and replace everything or what is different about what you are doing?

Lawrence: Vonage has a broad portfolio. Yes, one thing from an API side is exactly what you said. It's not about rip and replace. It's how do I augment things that I have; how do I build the customer experience in front of systems I've already got? However, we find that many organizations have the contact center and application builders on different floors! Typically, the people who build the mobile app, web app, commerce app, and website don't report to the contact center, so these worlds don't often meet. At Vonage we are often working with the application people, who are then saying, well - I've got the app to do work, but maybe I need video inside it, and then I need somebody to answer the video, maybe I need to have a messaging or chat of some sort, and do I need a live agent for that or only a bot? These considerations then drive an integrated discussion between application builders and the contact center – where Vonage can help, as we work with both groups.

The second piece is the power of social messaging platforms. We're seeing this business trend growing out of Asia Pacific, starting to happen in Latin America, Middle East, and now reaching parts of Europe. The idea is that you could build an audience, get them excited about your product, introduce products to them and then even sell them, all through WhatsApp or another social channel. We're starting to see, from a demographic standpoint (such as GenZ), and Forrester has some research on this, is a growth in these channels coming to the U.S. over time, demographic by demographic. In Asia Pacific, consumers often only have a smartphone and may not use a computer. Everything is going to be done with your thumbs and you live in your social messaging app. Hence, we are increasingly seeing global ecommerce companies starting to leverage these social messaging channels to market and grow revenue.

I’d like to show you a few of our screens.

In the following image, you can see a dashboard interface of our conversational commerce product tailored for agents. On the left-hand side, agents access an omnichannel inbox, aggregating interactions across various channels. Agents engage in live chats, initiating with a personalized form of "How may I assist you today?" message. Leveraging historical data, agents can efficiently address customer inquiries, building comprehensive profiles for returning customers. This social channel agent experience prioritizes text-based interactions, optimizing efficiency and personalized service. With a focus on seamless communication and enhanced customer engagement, our platform empowers agents to deliver exceptional support across multiple channels.

The chart below shows sentiment analysis. It's a simple concept; we feed what the customer is saying into generative AI to gauge their interest and help us understand them better. Then, we use that information to tailor our responses, deciding whether to add a more personal touch. These chat conversations are inherently personal, quite distinct from a typical phone call.

vonage image 1

The next image is an inbound scenario. Initially, this conversation starts from WhatsApp. We engage during this initial period, and then when I initiate outbound communication, it's not a blanket approach. Instead, I'm curating a database of individuals interested in specific products. I design marketing campaigns tailored to these different segments, closely aligned with a company’s digital marketing strategy. We have the flexibility to make choices about language and can assist with agent training, especially for multilingual interactions, ensuring they craft quality responses. With AI at play, rather than sifting through databases, I receive immediate answers to questions, leveraging pre-built and suggestions of rephrased responses.

vonage image 2

What we observed here was the execution of a promotion. For example, marketing may aim to attract their first 100,000 customers for a new product. Digital assets allow products to be displayed at a 50% discount, accessible with just a simple click of a button.  The process progresses as I proceed to fill the shopping cart.  For payment, users can seamlessly transition to a secure transaction within the payment gateway, ensuring secure transactions directly within WhatsApp. Some users may opt to use a wallet service such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, or the emerging Meta Pay (available in select countries today).

vonage image 3

Sheri: Contact centers sometimes operate in isolation from marketing, yet they must align because actions in one department invariably impact the other. A cohesive strategy is essential, as misaligned messaging can overwhelm the contact center. So, who within organizations typically spearheads this holistic approach?

Lawrence: There's a dual approach to this. On one hand, there's a bottom-up perspective involving collaboration among customer service heads, contact center managers, app developers, and marketing teams. We encourage them to communicate effectively amongst themselves. On the other hand, there's a top-down approach, where leadership, including the Chief Customer Experience Officer and the Chief Brand Officer, must champion this integration. We tailor our approach to resonate with both audiences.

Sheri: How do you convince management of the high ROI associated with building these apps?

Lawrence Byrd: There are two approaches here. One is to adopt incremental, practical measures, adding functionalities as needed. This avoids waiting for a complete overhaul, instead leveraging APIs for various enhancements driving focused ROI. Some may prefer a more strategic approach, aligning with the company's budget and interests to implement these changes. Additionally, the rising influence of disruptive digital natives, where ridesharing apps was the classic example but there are now many FinTech, HealthTech, and other XTech companies, who are all challenging traditional enterprises to enhance their customer experiences. This pressure, combined with existing budget allocations, often prompts top-down action. Our Vonage conversational commerce application is tailored to augment digital spend effectively.

Sheri Greenhaus: Do you have any final thoughts?

Lawrence Byrd: The crux lies in designing a superior customer experience with AI as a complementary tool. The focus should always be on optimizing the customer journey, determining where AI can best assist, whether on the customer-facing front-end across various channels, both traditional and new social channels, or on the employee back-end with AI assistants and analytics. Without this customer-centric approach, AI adoption may fall short of expectations.