Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce back Tact.ai to take the friction out of sales

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright June 24, 2018
Summary:
Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce all invest in Tact.ai, a conversational computing startup whose voice-driven intelligent workflow automation takes the friction out of sales

Young businessman jumping above paper friction as sales rise © Sergey Nivens - Shutterstock
Tact.ai, whose smart voice assistant technology increases the productivity of enterprise B2B sales teams, is claiming to be the first startup backed by rival cloud giants Amazon, Salesforce and Microsoft as it reveals a $27 million series C funding round today.

New investors in the round include Amazon Alexa Fund, Comcast Ventures and Salesforce Ventures, joining existing backers Accel Partners, M12 (formerly Microsoft Ventures), Redpoint Ventures and Upfront Ventures in bringing total funding to date to $57 million.

Tact's customer roster already includes large enterprises such as industrial giants ABB, GE and Honeywell, staffing agency Kelly Services and technology leaders Cisco and Dell, among others. I caught up with founder and CEO Chuck Ganapathi by phone last week to find out more about the company's progress and its ambition to use what it calls 'voice intelligence' to take friction out of high-end B2B sales processes. Ganapathi tells me:

Our belief is, voice is going to take over the enterprise and become an increasingly important way for humans to interact with software in the workplace, especially for professionals that are on the road a lot.

It's a safety issue [when driving] but it's also a productivity issue. Those are many hours [spent on the road] we could be keeping them productive and on their game.

Two sources of friction in sales

There are two sources of friction that the Tact platform helps eliminate, says Ganapathi. The first is the friction caused when salespeople have to access multiple separate applications, such as email, calendaring, sales automation and customer services, to organize their work. Tact's domain-specific, intelligent voice assistant automates much of this workflow and presents it in a natural conversational interface. The applications themselves become 'headless' services, so that the salespersion only has to interact with the voice assistant instead of having to visit each separate application. As Ganapathi explains:

Every single one of the software and applications I have to use today is a silo. It's up to me to make sense of the information.

What you really need are these to be microservices that are operating in a headless environment. That's what has made us successful to date, eliminating application friction from your data interaction.

The productivity gains are so significant that one customer has called Tact.ai "the thirteenth-month app," says Ganapathi — because it frees up the equivalent of a whole extra month of selling time over the year.

Voice collaboration that's 'better than Chatter'

The vendor is now introducing a new capability that it believes will eliminate a second source of friction. Called the 'Intelligent Workspace', it's a virtual teamroom that accommodates voice interactions and intelligent workflow automation alongside more traditional messaging, document collaboration and online meetings. Again, using voice as the primary interface means that participants don't have to fire up yet another application to co-ordinate teamwork around a sales project, Ganapathi explains:

What we realized was, another source of friction comes from wrangling all of the people, getting all of these people together.

What we wanted to do was to emulate the concept of the war room or the deal room. How do you use this technology and bring that same model into empowering a seller into adopting these [virtual] workrooms?

As well as the convenience of being able to quickly leave a voice message instead of having to open an app and type or dictate a message, having a recording of the tone of the person's voice adds an important dimension that other forms of messaging miss out on. Ganapathi explains:

Transcription is important for posterity, but I want my sales team to hear my authentic voice in the golden five minutes after a meeting — I want them to be able to listen to that. That is where the human element sometimes get missed with tech.

Another advantage over corporate messaging platforms such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and Salesforce Chatter — which Ganapathi helped introduce — is that it's important to be able to securely include external participants, such as the customer and partners. He explains:

One of the things I learned from my Chatter experience was, you don't want to take an org-centric view of the collaboration. If your world view is, 'I'm Acme Corp and I have a Chatter feed and all employees are part of it,' it really constrains external collaboration.

It's not just about messaging, it's also about being able to do transactions across company boundaries. That's especially important in our world of sales. You're spending most of your time with parties outside of your organization.

Alexa, data governance and voice intelligence

Salesforce has been a long-term partner of Tact.ai, but had not invested prior to the latest round. The investment from Amazon comes after Tact became the first enterprise skill to be available for use on Alexa for Business when Amazon launched its new service at its re:Invent conference last November.

The Amazon relationship had begun a year earlier as a result of Tact.ai first developing an Alexa skill that it posted on the consumer store. One key feature Alexa gained as a result of Tact's input was the addition of voice profiles, which allow Alexa to recognize users by their voice. Ganapathi recalls:

We told them, the problem with putting an Alexa in a conference room with my credentials on it is, the janitor might come in to the room at the end of the day and find out what my [sales] pipeline is. We pushed hard on getting that in the platform. We were the first skill to incorporate voice ID.

Data governance is front-of-mind for enterprise customers, he says, particularly because Tact is one of the few applications that directly accesses enterprise email systems. To allay security concerns, the multi-tenant Tact application stores each customer's data on their own single-tenant database instance, and encrypts it at rest using a key under the customer's direct control.

Although some of the capabilities Tact offers can be achieved by linking together separate AI engines, voice assistants, workflow and collaboration tools, its special sauce comes from bringing these capabilities together in the specific domain of enterprise B2B sales, as Ganapathi has previously explained to us. The company now calls this its Voice Intelligence engine, and its press release today highlights five features that it says are unique to the platform:

Adaptive Organizational Ontologies — unlike general purpose digital assistants that cater to a wide range of consumer interest, Tact is specialized — trained to support discussions tailored to the sales domain, seller persona, and enterprise terminology.

Nonlinear Dialog Flows — allows the assistant to adapt to the user’s conversation flow in a more dynamic way, even when the user switches topics.

Situational Context — ensures the highest rate of accuracy by incorporating knowledge about the user, their preferences, and past conversation history to better understand and predict what they mean.

Dynamic Narratives — allows the assistant to avoid monotonous answers by providing more human-sounding responses in natural language, instead of mechanical readouts of database fields.

System-Initiated Conversations — like a human assistant tapping you on the shoulder, the digital assistant can now proactively initiate a dialog with the user to push insights and enable the user to take action.

The company says the latest financing will be used to expand its operations into new products and markets. Tact.ai recently opened a new EMEA headquarters in the UK, and a new development center in Bengaluru, India.

My take

I'm intrigued by Tact.ai because the company operates at the nexus of several significant trends that I've been following closely — the future of collaboration, conversational computing and headless applications, intelligent workflow automation, and the use of AI to augment human interaction, all wrapped up in the broader pursuit of frictionless enterprise.

While the new funding round is interesting — especially in view of the involvement of three big players in enterprise cloud computing and AI — what's most impressive about the company is its growing roster of Fortune 500 customers. For all the buzzword compliance of an AI-powered workflow automation app that focuses on conversational computing and headless apps, it's the apparent success of the platform in raising productivity among enterprise sales teams that suggests the company really is onto something.