Directly, a startup helping businesses launch and train virtual agents, today announced a $11 million extension to its previous $20 million funding round. Alongside the new capital, Directly unveiled a partner ecosystem designed to help companies like Meya, Percept.ai, and SmartAction integrate with its platform without having to develop internal solutions.

According to Customer Thermometer, 54% of people have higher expectations for customer service today than just one year ago, and Directly cofounders Antony Brydon, Jean Tessier, and Jeff Patterson assert that a degree of automation is required to keep pace with demand. It’s all the more true in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed some enterprise customer service operations to the breaking point.

Directly’s platform taps AI trained by thousands of subject matter experts to analyze contact center interactions and strategically answer, automate, and prevent customer issues. The systems are designed to integrate with existing customer relationship management platforms and messaging apps, including Microsoft’s Bot Framework, Salesforce’s Einstein Bot, and Google’s Dialogflow, matching chatbots and human agents with customers across channels in a unified experience.

Directly’s API lets clients insert automatic answers mapped to intent into any messaging channel in order to resolve issues in-line and in real time. Its AI-powered expert answers feature automatically determines which questions are best handled by a network of subject matter experts, who provide live assistance over channels. And Directly’s complementary insights feature automatically shares issues internally to the right stakeholders to work on preventing problems.

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High-profile client Microsoft said it worked with Directly to build a trusted network of Excel and Surface hardware power users who could answer questions directly, instead of routing them through an outsourced call center. (The experts receive a cash incentive, typically $2 to $60, while Directly gets a 30% cut.) Questions are clustered into topics, and AI identifies which experts are the top performers on specific topics by polling the wider expert network. If a particular answer is better than others, it will bubble to the top, and the expert who provided that answer earns more income every time the question is served.

Experts get paid an average $200 a week, but the top 5% make $2,000 to $5,000 a week, according to Directly.

The company’s growing list of partners and customers includes LinkedIn, Airbnb, Autodesk, Samsung, and SAP, which Directly CEO Mike De la Cruz says are saving on average tens of millions of dollars per year. A larger company can do $10 million in rewards a year, while a mid-sized company can see $1 million in rewards a year, Directly previously told VentureBeat.

This round extension —  which was led by Triangle Peak Partners and Toba Capital — brings San Francisco-based Directly’s total raised to over $66 million, following the raise in January. Notably, it comes after a year in which the startup grew 10% per month over a six-month period.

Autonomous customer service agents are fast becoming the rule rather than the exception, partly because consumers seem to prefer it that way. According to research published last year by Vonage subsidiary NewVoiceMedia, 25% of people would rather have their queries handled by a chatbot or other self-service alternative than a human, and Salesforce says roughly 69% of consumers choose chatbots for quick communication with brands.

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