Talking about AI (Artificial Intelligence) with Jared Mendez, CTO, of Ansafone Contact Centers

February 24, 2020
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The Philosophy and Culture of Ansafone Contact Centers

Randy Harmat Discusses What Makes Ansafone Contact Centers Different


Judy: Good morning, everyone. My name is Judy Lin and I am with Digital Judy Podcast today. We're here with Ansafone Contact Centers in Sunny Santa Ana, California. Ansafone is a leading provider of business process outsourcing and call center solutions. With 50 years of delivering world class customer experience and brand care, we offer state of the art communications technology and outsource-call-center services, including in-bound calls, out-bound calls, HIPAA compliance, secure text messaging, email response, live chat and more. We provide a seamless extension of you.
Judy: Hi Jared! How are you?
Jared: I’m doing well - thank you for coming down.
Judy: Thanks for inviting us down here at Ansafone Contact Centers. So tell us about your role here.
Jared: My role at Ansafone is the Chief Technology Officer.
Judy: Okay.
Jared: So, my main job duties are, are delivering stability as well as coming up with innovative solutions for our customers.
Judy: Okay so what kind of services do you provide here?
Jared: We provide outsource contact center services and also business process outsourcing so everything from answering service for doctors and lawyers’ offices, down to supporting health plan membership, even financial services as well.
Judy: Yeah, I actually talked to your CEO, Randy Harmat, and I guess natural disasters has been like a key niche.
Jared: It’s been a big one for us.
Judy: Yeah, tell us about that.
Jared: Yeah. We got into this business through a line of business called first notice of loss for insurance companies. So, when a hurricane hits South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, what have you - and people need help getting adjusters out to deal with their home damage, we are who they call in the disaster. Right? We can take in that intake and start the process to deliver them help, recover their home and get back to normal life.
Judy: And you’re able to support that kind of capacity that quickly?
Jared: Yeah that’s the tricky part.
Judy: Just on the fly?
Jared: Yeah that is the tricky part – and it’s two-fold. One is making sure we have the technology options to be able to onboard 100 or 200 so-on agents very quickly. The other, is the human element of that challenge. How do we bring on board enough live agents to support these efforts in a short period of time?
Judy: And how do you do that?
Jared: Tried and true practices.
Judy: (Laughing) Yeah.
Jared: So knowing and understanding that someone coming, new into the contact center business – we try and source people with experience in this industry, and then deliver a good quality training and quality assurance program to make sure, in a pinch and quickly trained, these people are well-armed to help the person on the other end of the line.
Judy: Yes. So what does a daily day look like for you here?
Jared: A daily day for me is a lot of research and development lately.
Judy: I see.
Jared: We’ve built a good organization up underneath myself from a day-to-day systems and support and operational IT, that allows me to focus on what’s next for Ansafone and our customers.
Judy: Yes. So, I’m curious – how many years have you been here?
Jared: Twenty years with Ansafone now.
Judy: Has it been twenty years?
Jared: Yeah, it’s been quite a while.
Judy: Oh goodness. Well I just heard about your 50th Anniversary, right??
Jared: Yeah Ansafone is a long-running company!
Judy: That’s amazing I don’t hear much of that in the industry.
Jared: No! Especially not in the call center world. We can from cutting our tees from the 80’s 90’s and in the answering service world and really linked into the contact center of EOP world in the late 90’s. And that’s what I think helped us from going the way of the dodo and not being a company any longer and staying a business was constant innovation of what’s next.
Judy: So in your twenty years plus and experience of technology, what would you say is the most intriguing in the tech-development? And what do you see as a detriment?
Jared: Sure, I’d say its artificial intelligence is the subject of this year and next and what’s coming next.
Judy: It’s a buzz word, right? Artificial intelligence?
Jared: It really is.
Judy: Can you talk on that – I’d like to learn more about this.
Jared: Yeah absolutely. I think it’s a very fuzzy concept for a lot of people. Of how does AI really transact in my world? And where can it help?
Judy: Yeah.
Jared: And it’s different for every vertical and every company and how they do things. Having the ability to support this artificial intelligence from a customer records perspective and the programmable interface just to get in there. And then how do you even approach it? What transactions do you want artificial intelligence to deal with?
Judy: But aren’t you afraid that the average person is going to get turned off by artificial intelligence? I mean you’re in the call center industry – I mean who wants to talk to like a bot? I’m just being real with you. Like we need to be real right? Because people want to ask that.
Jared: Absolutely! And I think it’s a happy medium of the two and not getting too caught up in the AI fever, we’ll call it, and wanting to swing the pendulum away from live people to only automation. That hasn’t worked in the past with traditional automated IVR’s, or phone trees, the press one, press two, kind of options. You still need that human element behind and that I think has been the biggest challenge here and how to formulate a product that we can go to our customers with, is AI is here to help do the easy transactions, do them quickly, and give you a cost effective way to still staff the live agents and the humans to help your customers in the event that it’s a more difficult transaction or they don’t want to deal with the bot.
Judy: I mean, is this common now? Is AI part of the mainstream?
Jared: It is.
Judy: It is?
Jared: Larger organizations – when you call in now, what would traditionally be these phone tree kind of IVR’s to navigate, are now asking you, “How can I help you?” and you’re saying that, just naturally, “I need help rescheduling my flight” – if you’re calling an airline. It’s no longer “Press 3 for reservations”.
Judy: Is there any room for technical errors in the AI?
Jared: There always is - right. These bots have to be trained. That’s where I think starting slow is proven here, let alone for internal adoption within your organization, especially your customer bases. How can you start to integrate AI without alienating your customers - like you’ve decided to have them talk to a machine instead of human from now on?
Judy: Right.
Jared: So how can you make it easy for them to do the easy transactions and then still make it very quick and unimpeded to get to a live person in your time?
Judy: Got it. Wow – that was quite a discussion about that so what would you say are your top three consistent problems in the industry of call centers?
Jared: I would say stability.
Judy: What do you mean?
Jared: Stability from just ensuring you have a good business continuity plan. Disaster recovery.
Judy: Like the infrastructure needs to be in place?
Jared: Correct. And not just written down on a piece of paper and never practiced - and any IT operation. Just because you have the plans – how well are they used? And wow well are you people involved know how to use them? And are they tested regularly - and continuously improved? I see a lot of organizations where they have this GR plan collecting dust somewhere and it’s never been exercised. And it’s not time to learn if your GR plan works in the middle of a disaster.
Judy: So, I’m curious, Jared, why would you pick this industry or why did you get into technology? Is this something that you enjoy or that you have a fascination with. I mean it sounds like it could be really stressful and complex?
Jared: It definitely is all of that and I got involved in the beginning doing Microsoft database server kind of work, and business intelligence and analytics … and having worked at Ansafone now, for many years, one of the things that’s kept me around and in this industry is the fact that I don’t work for a single company every day.
Judy: Oh wow I didn’t think about that! Right.
Jared: I get to go learn of the next new organization in a whole new vertical – whole new systems. And how can we integrate and help their customers together? It’s never the same!
Judy: So you have multiple clients basically?
Jared: Correct – and multiple industries! So I get to live the day in the life of a health plan one day, and tomorrow financial services company …
Judy: And then natural disaster …
Jared: And then a natural disaster for first notice of loss – so keeping things exciting. And then figuring out how to keep your technology nimble enough to deal in all these various verticals – has always kept it very interesting for me and never had me wanting to go elsewhere.
Judy: Yeah that’s really interesting. So, what would you see or what would you like to see change in this industry since you’ve been in it for as long as over twenty years - besides artificial intelligence?
Jared: Data analytics I think is important. And how can you have you customer service representatives, actually feed you information that’s actionable to help your customer base long-term. So are you getting the inputs from your live agents to help you make business decisions.
Judy: I’m sorry, Jared, so what do you mean like data analytics? What kind of data are you specifically talking about?
Jared: Around why are the people calling in, or chatting in, or sending an SMS in for help.
Judy: Okay like what kind of calls are coming through?
Jared: Correct. And rather than just delivering a report saying you received ten customer service calls, three returns and two complaints. Really why were they calling in for that reason? So, having a quality assurance program where we can not only look at the call reasons, but what is truly going on behind the scenes and partner with our client to fix those things that aren’t easily scene in basic reporting.
Judy: Got it. So …
Jared: Difficult situations when people are stressed out how do you get through the phone that you’re there to help.
Judy: Wouldn’t that be kind of a detriment, if let’s say, you have this straight technology but then an agent gets, maybe impatient or frustrated on the phone and kind of gives a negative impression. How do you fix or what do you do with the agents? Do you train them properly before letting them on a phone call? Or how does that work?
Jared: That’s the key. The key is don’t just unleash unproven people into the world and hope for the best – that’s not a good plan.
Judy: (Laughing) Yeah!
Jared: It starts with picking the right profile of the employees we look to hire. Alright. We want someone who wants to help people, who’s not going to be …
Judy: Just anybody – yeah.
Jared: Correct. Right. You need to be able to deal with stressful situations. Sometimes the people reaching out to a contact center agent for help, are going through life situations that are very difficult to begin with. And you need to be a good active listener – you need to have empathy and navigate the situation and without getting yourself stressed out during this call. The person needing help is already stressed out to begin with.
Judy: Exactly. You probably need a calm person to navigate right?
Jared: Correct. And a lot of that is the starting out with the right agent profile. Right? Do they have the right mentality? And kind of approach there, to deal with these kinds of situations? And then layering on the tried-and-true contact center training process that we put our agents through. Soft skills – how do you make sure and still maintain quality control in these difficult situations when people are stressed out? How do you get through the phone that you’re there to help?
Judy: Right. So with all these natural disasters happening more … I mean, how do you see Ansafone coming in and helping with that situation? I know you talked about it earlier, but I’m just seeing this could be a common theme that’s happening in our everyday lives, can you speak about that?
Jared: It’s definitely a tricky business. It’s making sure you’ve got the right systems, and bandwidth to deal with the large influx of phone calls, emails, whatever the channel is that they’re contacting us on. And then how do you source enough people in the time of need. How does Ansafone source enough people for you in the time of need – in the right location that’s not affected by your disaster. And I think that is the, the challenge ahead of us in the industry, and its’ always been there, in these kinds of disaster and insurance claims types of businesses. So, making sure you’ve got the plans in place and how do you onboard so many people in various locations quickly – that’s really at the heart of what we do as a business.
Judy: Got it. So, what is your happiest moment here at Ansafone, Jared?
Jared: I’d say helping others has always been a big thing for myself and being able to help others who can’t necessarily help themselves – has always been big for me. One example would be helping out a government agency with their child abuse and neglect, notice kind of intake for these kind of complaints. And how do you navigate rural resources who are in these communities with bad technology or old technology, and still layer on new stuff that can help understand is everyone who needs to reach out for help, being helped when they need it. And we are able to dive in and deliver modern technology on top of legacy things into some rural areas where people still need help. And trying to get government or different agencies to totally migrate to something new is a lot time, just cost prohibitive and they can’t - but they still need the people on the other end in these locations to be able to support. So being able to navigate those situations and come up with a happy medium between the two is a really a good experience for me.
Judy: Understandable. So, besides fixing these like complex IT problems and situations – what do you like to do for fun?
Jared: For fun I like to go get my stress out a little bit. It’s definitely a very stressful job.
Judy: I can see that! Yes!
I’ve heard people compare being a technology leader in an organization to riding a bicycle that’s on fire while everyone’s trying to kick you off of it. So the key is bringing a little bit of sanity and stability has been big for me in Ansafone over the years. So that way, when the stressful day is over, it’s not putting out fires as things go wrong. So, stability really brought good balance to Ansafone IT staff. Right - So we can go outside and do what we like to do outside of work and not be worried about the stress of the day.
Judy: Yeah. So, your hobbies are really important?
Jared: Correct. Correct. And for me, I like to take aggression out on a racetrack - works really well for stress. (laughing)
Judy: Wow. Racetrack – that’s quite a sport.
Jared: It’s a great stress reliever. Also cooking! Coming up with new recipes. It’s kind of what my job is during the day right. What’s the recipe to put it together!? Exactly.
Judy: Yes! That’s incredible. Well, thank you so much for coming out and interviewing with us. And uh, where can we find Ansafone?
Jared: – great place to reach out to us. We are also present in social media everywhere. So, lots of ways to get in touch with us and help your company out.
Judy: Awesome – thank you so much ,Jared.
Jared: Thank you, Judy.

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