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Google sneaks into the chatbot world with Onward acquisition

vintage  red obot on the phone standing on a old wooden f

Google has made a somewhat sly entry into the chatbot segment with the acquisition of Onward, an automation start-up based out of San Francisco.

Founded in 2015, Onward states it can parse and extract meaning from complex natural language messages to create customer service chatbots and import data from other sources to ‘empower’ agents to respond based on the metrics that matter most. And to make things even better, customers do not need to know how to code to build advanced flows that tailor answers to their own customer responses. The Onward technology already links into other enterprise platforms such as Salesforce, HubSpot and Shopify.

For Google, this is typical of its acquisition strategy; purchase a relatively unknown organization just ahead of the boomtime. Think of Android (which reportedly bought for $50 million) in the mobile OS space, or Deepmind (purchased for $500 million) in the artificial intelligence field. Both these acquisitions are bargains considering the value they offer the business. This time the Googlers are seemingly eyeing up the world of customer service chatbots.

While this might be a surprise acquisition for some, what is worth noting is work experience. Prior to founding Onward (or Agent Q as it was originally known), CEO Pramod Thammaiah was a Product Manager at Google, working on projects such as UI development for Shopping. During his time at the internet giant Thammaiah led the Development and launch of the first mobile and tablet Shopping UIs on Google.

“Today, we’re announcing the next step on that journey — Onward is joining the Google family,” the team wrote on its blog. “With Google, we’ll be able to expand the reach of the technologies that power Onward. These core technologies are what got us excited in the first place, and we are excited to bring them to Google.

“We began as a bootstrapped start-up working out of our living room in a Brooklyn apartment. From there, we relocated to San Francisco and were fortunate enough to grow the Onward team and expand to clients across the globe.”

Chatbots in the telco world have become increasingly popular over the last 12-18 months, not only because there is an opportunity to decrease overheads but a chance to further engage customers, with the potential to increase loyalty. Vodafone’s TOBi is an excellent example as an attempt to increase loyalty through customer engagement, while DT has been using automation as a means to slash jobs.

The first key benefit is simple; if you deploy a chatbot alongside human customer service agents customers can choose to wait in-line to speak to someone or interact with the chatbot and skip the dreading on-hold music. The telcos are empowering the customer with a choice, but also reducing waiting times and the burden on the often resource-strained customer service department.

The second point is all about knowledge. These chatbots are not only a front-line tool, but can be used to amass information in-front of the customer service agent. It can be a back-office tool collecting customer history, reacting to how the conversation is progressing, while also accessing relevant promotions and offers to increase up-selling. In both instances, the customer is content. Firstly, reduced time on the phone and secondly, the telco is demonstrating it knows the customer as an individual.

Google clearly recognises there is an opportunity here, not only in the telco world but every sector which interacts with customers, or wishes to do so. The interesting aspect here is the power (technology, resource and financial) of Google; this is an acquisition which could cause a significant disruption in the space.

Firstly, Onwards looks to be a useful tool, but when you marry it to the power of Deepmind and the deep learning algorithms the team are developing in that corner of the Google universe. The Deepmind engineers are using their AI smarts to add value in every aspect of the Google business and it is ensuring the Google business units remain continuously relevant as customer demands and trends evolve.

Secondly, looking at the resource, the Moonshot Labs in Silicon Valley have been a hotspot of innovation for years. Google employs numerous engineers to play around with new ideas, knowing that every now and then an idea might have the potential to scale into another multi-billion dollar business. These engineers are generally given as much freedom as commercially viable to explore new ideas, which makes you wonder what they might be able to come up with when chatbots are given prominence.

Finally, looking at the financial side, Google has shown numerous times it is willing to spend big in pursuit of the next big thing. Google Maps is an excellent example of where it works, and Google Fiber is one where it didn’t. However, both business units demonstrated the exact same enthusiasm for trying every single angle before deciding it is throwing good money after bad. Google is not afraid of an idea if the massive profits do not emerge immediately. It’ll carry on plugging away until it cracks the market (Maps) or finally decides the market has beaten its ambition (Fiber).

With companies like IBM attempting to corner the chatbot market with its Watson AI providing the foundational intelligence, and others like Amdocs trying to leverage experience in the telco world to capitalise on the burgeoning segment, Google’s wanderings will come as somewhat of a concern. Google is one of the most powerful, wealthy and innovative companies on the planet, we’d be willing to bet it makes some sort of splash in the telco chatbot segment.


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