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Balto, a call center automation startup based in St. Louis, Missouri, today announced that it raised $37 million in a series B funding round led by Stripes, with participation from RingCentral Ventures, Sierra Ventures, TIA Ventures, OCA Ventures, Stage Venture Partners, SaaS Venture Capital, Sandalphon Capital, Cultivation Capital, and Atreides Management. The capital brings the company’s total funding to $51.2 million so far, and CEO Marc Bernstein says it’ll be used to “make leaps” in closed-loop reporting, allowing customers to scale top-performing agent behavior.
During the pandemic, shifts to digital have bolstered enterprise investments in customer service automation. A recent Harris Poll survey found that 46% of customer interactions are now automated — a percentage that’s expected to climb to 59% within three years. The over $339.4 billion contact center market has received outsize attention in recent months, with 56% of multimedia and tech companies saying that they plan to implement AI-powered contact center technology in the future, according to Deloitte.
Founded in 2017 by Chris Kontes, Davidson Girard, and Bernstein, Balto aims to provide contact centers with a way to improve conversations as they’re happening, in real time. The company leverages AI optimized for contact center applications — specifically automated speech recognition and natural language processing models trained on a dataset of more than 75 million calls and 1 billion labels.
Bernstein says that Balto continued to grow during the pandemic, due in large part to companies needing a way to get information to now-remote agents. “When contact center teams work remotely, managers don’t have the luxury of talking to agents in person for coaching or training,” he told VentureBeat via email. “Using Balto’s real-time tools, that roadblock becomes significantly smaller. Managers can push out script updates to all agents at the push of a button; they can instantly jump into calls when an agent needs support; and they have access to the data from all their calls in real time.”
Balto’s AI listens to both sides of a conversation and visually prompts agents what to say next. A smart checklist feature reminds agents of the prescribed conversational flow, with Balto automatically checking each point off a list. Balto also offers voice-trigged dynamic prompts, including rebuttals, compliance statements, and product knowledge. Notifications give agents feedback on keywords, soft skills, and other habits, while reminders can be delivered via digital sticky notes, along with team leaderboard rankings.
On the backend, Balto offers a range of management features, including an agent performance dashboard that swiftly converts all customer calls into data. This data funnels into a portal that shows metrics for agent and team performance, as well as snippets of call transcripts. An accompanying win rate analysis tool analyzes the effectiveness of phrases across different agents, while a trend analysis feature shows agent, customer, and competitor trends in real time. Balto also offers a playbook designer managers can use to send winning phrases, important points, reminders, and more to agents’ machines.
Balto says it encrypts all data in transit and at rest. The thin client, which launches when agents begin a call and sits to the side of agents’ screens, is designed to work with any system that relies on headsets plugged into a computer to place calls.
According to McKinsey, 29% of customer service agent duties have the potential to be automated. That might be why an estimated 33% of contact centers had invested in AI and robotics in 2019, a Deloitte report found.
“Enterprise companies currently spend hours listening to call recordings and rely on sampling a small percentage of calls to gauge agent performance … [They] also struggle with identifying which calls to coach,” Bernstein explained. “This leads to wasted time spent searching for a good coaching opportunity instead of actually coaching.”
Sensing the opportunity, tech giants and startups alike have released products in recent years designed to automate common call center tasks. Google’s Contact Center AI combines virtual agents with agent assistance software, as does Amazon Connect. Observe.ai, Asapp, CallMiner, Cogito, Uniphore, Cresta, and Augment offer similar solutions.
Gartner research director Megan Marek Fernandez said that customer experience improvement and contact center projects today are being driven by a growing focus on customer retention, customer expansion, and customer interaction efficiency improvements. As interaction volumes rise, customers are using a broader mix of channels to connect with brands.
“Social media interfaces like websites, mobile devices, and email represent a growing entry point for interactions. This means many businesses are struggling to figure out how to improve customer service while handling higher interaction volumes from a broader mix of channels,” Fernandez told VentureBeat via email. “Gartner expects investments in contact center solutions that can enable automation of interactions across channels to accelerate. As part of this automation, AI-enabled bots and virtual assistants will handle more basic interactions while contact center agents handle more complex topics.”
But Balto has managed to hold its own, attracting “dozens” of customers including AmTrust Financial, Katapult, Advantage Communications, and National General Insurance. Bernstein says that the company’s platform has provided over 160 million real-time recommendations to date.
“Our [product] automatically scores 100% of all calls and provides the data to managers in real time,” Bernstein said. “Real-time coaching alerts managers for key in-call coaching opportunities in real time. And unlike other listening or chat coaching tools, [Balto] allows managers to join the call and guide the agent with just a few clicks.”
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