Observe.AI raises $8M to use artificial intelligence to improve call centers

Being stuck on the phone with call centers is painful. We all know this. Observe.AI is one company that wants to make the experience more bearable, and it’s raised $8 million to develop an artificial intelligence system that it believes will do just that.

The funding round was led by Nexus Venture Partners, with participation from MGV, Liquid 2 Ventures and Hack VC. Existing investors Emergent Ventures and Y Combinator also took part — Observe.AI was part of the YC’s winter 2018 batch.

The India-U.S. startup was founded last year with the goal of solving a very personal problem for founders Swapnil Jain (CEO), Akash Singh (CTO) and Sharath Keshava (CRO): making call centers better. But, unlike most AI products that offer the potential to fully replace human workforces, Observe.AI is setting out to help the humble customer service agent.

The company’s first product is an AI that assists call center workers by automating a range of tasks, from auto-completing forms for customers to guiding them on next steps in-call and helping find information quickly. Jain told TechCrunch in an interview that the product was developed following months of consultation with call center companies and their staff, both senior and junior. That included a stint in Manila, one of the world’s capitals for offshoring customer services and a city well known to Keshava, who helped healthcare startup Practo launch its business in the Philippines’ capital.

That effort to know call center operates directly has also shaped how Observe.AI is pitching its services. Rather than going to companies, it is tapping the root of the tree by offering its services to the call centers who manage customer support for well-known businesses behind the curtain. Uber, for example, is one of many to use Philippines-based support centers, but the Observe.AI thesis is that going directly to the source is easier than navigating large companies for business.

One such partner is Concentrix , one of the world’s largest customer support providers with over 100,000 staff and offices dotted around the globe, while the startup said it has tapped Philippines telco PLDT for infrastructure.

In addition to helping understand the problems and generating business, working directly with these companies also gives Observe.AI access to and use of data, which is essential for developing any AI and natural language processing-based systems.

Beyond improving its customer service assistant — which Jain likens to an ‘Alexa for call centers’ — Observe.AI is working to develop a virtual assistant of its own that can handle the more basic and repetitive calls from customers to help free up agents for callers who need a human on the other end of the line.

“We aim to eventually automate a large part of the call center experience,” Jain explained in an interview. “A good set [of customer calls] are complex but a large set can be fairly automated as they are simple in nature.”

The startup is aiming to introduce ‘voicebots’ before March 2020, with a beta launch targeted at the end of 2019.

“The kind of company that will disrupt call centers will come from the east — we truly understand the call center life,” Jain told TechCrunch.

He explained that, while Silicon Valley is a hotbed for tech development, understanding the problems that need to be solved requires spending time in markets like India and the Philippines.

“That knowledge is super, super valuable… someone in the U.S. can’t even think about it,” he added.

That said, Observe.AI is headquartered in the U.S., in Santa Clara. That’s where Keshava, the company CRO, is based with a growing team that is dedicated pre- and post-sales and to building relationships with major software platforms used by call center companies. The idea with the latter is that they can provide an avenue into new business by working with Observe.AI to add AI smarts to their product.

In one such example, Talkdesk , a U.S. startup that offers cloud-based contact center services, has added Observe.AI’s services to what it offers to its customers. Talkdesk CEO Tiago Paiva called the addition “a huge opportunity for call center efficiency and improving the caller experience.”

The startup’s India-based team is Bangalore and it handles technology, which includes the machine learning component. Total headcount is 16 people right now but the founding team expects that will at least double before the end of this year.