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IBM today announced the launch of new capabilities in Watson Assistant, its platform that lets customers build conversational interfaces into apps, devices, and channels. Thanks to a collaboration with IntelePeer, it’s now easier to set up and test Watson Assistant voice agents. And a new Agent App allows for a more seamless handoff to a live agent.

Virtual assistants are gaining popularity due in part to technical improvements in natural language processing. According to IBM’s 2021 Global AI Adoption Index, 52% of IT professionals report that their company is using or considering natural language processing solutions to bolster customer experiences. In particular, AI and automation are playing a growing role in call centers, enabling enterprises to keep up with rising customer demands.

With the integration of IntelePeer’s product with Watson Assistant, IBM customers with an existing contact center phone system can connect directly to the Watson Assistant platform. Beyond this, Watson Assistant can now tie in with most major contact center platforms, including Talkdesk and Aircall

Meanwhile, Watson Assistant’s search skill, which launched in beta last December, is now generally available. It includes short-answer retrieval based on a question-answering system from IBM Research, allowing a virtual agent to return an answer in a few words from longer sentences or passages. Beyond providing context on where each answer comes from, the search skill can help admins update virtual agents with broader sources of information, minimizing the need for manual updates. 

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As for the new Agent App feature, it leverages IBM’s speech detection models to deliver a real-time transcription of customer conversations to agents when hand-offs occur. The idea is to save callers the hassle of having to repeat their questions to multiple people, and in the process get agents up to speed more efficiently.

“One critical challenge facing nearly every business today is the need to better communicate with their customers and employees across all channels,” Daniel Hernandez, general manager of data and AI at IBM, told VentureBeat via email. “We’re continuously delivering new innovations in natural language processing and automation, and building a strong, open ecosystem with partners like IntelePeer to help businesses transform customer care with Watson Assistant.”

Call center automation

Over the past several years, businesses have increasingly turned to cloud-based contact centers to address budding customer service challenges. The pandemic accelerated that move — service conveniences were put in place out of necessity, which gave customers more options for interacting with companies. For example, 78% of contact centers in the U.S. now intend to deploy AI in the next 3 years, according to Canam Research. And research from The Harris Poll indicates that 46% of customer interactions are already automated, with the number expected to reach 59% by 2023.

Reflecting the trend, IBM says that businesses including DirecTV Latin America, Humana, CVS Health, Kroger, GlaxoSmithKline, Lloyd’s Banking Group, and Regions Bank now use Watson Assistant. One of IBM’s public sector clients, the State of Rhode Island, has tapped Watson Assistant since last October to field more than 100,000 calls on topics related to COVID-19 test scheduling, test results, travel restrictions, vaccine eligibility, and vaccine scheduling.

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