Chatbots, says a report authored by veteran Senior Director Analyst Annette Jump of Gartner Inc UK, are one of the Top 4 personal technologies tech CEOs should exploit for business digitization (the other three are along with Location Sensing /Tracking, 3D Sensing cameras and Biometric Authentication). And perhaps the single largest, most successful and effective end-to-end deployment and delivery of a chatbot in India has been by CoRover, a young start-up in Bangalore. So remarkably successful has the Ask DISHA chatbot been on one of India’s largest platforms, IRCTC.in, that it earned a 200-word-answer question in the Civil Services Exam – such is the power and importance of people connect for aspiring bureaucrats and the powers that identify, groom and train them for the greatest positive public benefit and impact.
I caught up with Ankush Sabharwal, Founder & CEO of CoRover, the end-to-end chatbot company which he also leads as CEO, gave India its biggest chatbot yet through a huge government organization, no less, created Chatbot as a Service for the industry, and is today at the frontline of those enabling the virtual assistant- or chatbot surge in India.
Ankush has more than 15 years of IT experience and has worked in various countries across roles like Software Engineer, Technical Leader, Project Manager, Development / Delivery / Engineering Manager, Architect, Agile Coach, Engineering Program Manager, and now, of course, as an entrepreneur.
He had led many global engineering and program management teams, and successfully implemented various Agile Projects in distributed teams across varied verticals. Ankush has implemented multiple multi-million dollar projects simultaneously.
Ankush has several awards at national and international levels for his technical as well as leadership skills. He has trained /coached more than 3000 people on Agile / Scrum and on other technical, management and domain skills. He has been certified as one of the Top Five Agile Coaches in India by KPMG, and was awarded the Silver medal in the AgileOlympiad.
What truly drives him are two things: innovating and building reliable, secure and scalable software products, like his recent patented inventions — internet-Less Chat & ChatBot as a Service (CaaS). And the enormous scope and potential for Chatbots across various sectors of enterprise in India.
Excerpts from our conversation:
You founded CoRover in 2016. What’s the single biggest need-gap it has been addressing in the marketplace? What is the market opportunity?
Since 2016, we have partnered with large public and private organizations to enable them on smart chatbots, and have helped them address total cost of maintenance and support through smarter way to engage with prospects, and more. Gartner predicts that globally, 25% of digital workers will use Virtual Employee Assistants daily by 2021. Since at present fewer than 2% employees are using chatbots, we would see chatbot usage grow astronomically by 1150%!
In fact, CoRover has created a new category in the industry — Chatbot as a Service (CaaS)®, and we integrate our chatbot with any website, mobile app, or any social media channel like Facebook, for instance, in just 10 minutes.
Which are CoRover’s customers that have integrated chatbots in their marketing efforts?
We are engaged with IRCTC, NPCI, KSRTC, J&K Tourism, North East Tourism, Israel Tourism, SRS Travels, Orange and VRL among others. And are also in advanced discussion with one of the top organizations in Finance, Travel & Insurance sectors.
On IRCTC, the CoRover-powered chatbot Ask DISHA has handled more than 2 billion interactions with more than 70 million unique users! In fact, Ask DISHA is being considered as the AI innovation of 2019, being the first chatbot for any government organization in India. In the Civil Services Entrance Exam, there was an answer-in-200-words question about Ask DISHA 200.
What is the value that a CoRover chatbot can provide to the end users of your clients?
Well, each user can get the required information without making a phone call or sending an email doing live chat with an agent. Just ask our bot a question and get an immediate and correct answer. Users can ask questions through any channel — web, Android or iOS mobile app, social media channels like Facebook, Slack, etcetera. In the current digital era, we have a lot of information; however, getting the right information at the right rime is the critical area where we have what I might venture to say, unparalleled and extremely effective expertise.
Remember, a satisfied customer will come back to you again, and the next time, it will not be with another query but with an intent to buy. Also, chatbots help not only in customer acquisition, but also, thanks to the user satisfaction, customer retention.
Chatbots companies have been proliferating. What differentiates CoRover in terms of chatbot technology?
We have 3 patents applied for. Our Cognitive AI Framework is based on AI, ML & NLP – which has multi-layered components with deep multi-task learning to give accurate responses at optimized computing costs. Our chatbot can be integrated with any website or app within 10 minutes.
Ankush, speaking of the patents you have applied for reminds me of something interesting that happened with you recently. You code too, right? Tell us about when you suddenly decided to sit down and do yourself something that even the technical experts in your team said would take time. The challenge had to do with creating a new language for Chatbots. Tell us that story first.
(Laughs) Yes, I do code, but I really don’t get much time to do it. But yes, I created CBML myself. A few months back, we had to develop a contextual dialogue capabilities, I called our CTO, and he said, “The work is in progress; it will take some time.” I just thought, “Let me give it a shot. I started working and coding at around midnight, and by 5 am, was able to create the capability to manage dialogue. Now our clients or our data team can create workflows and manage dialogues without writing any code.
So that’s another of our patents — the new language CBML (Chatbot Mark-up Language), which makes it very simple for anyone who knows English to create a conversational bot having contextual dialogue and workflow management.
And what are your plans with the new Chatbot Mark-up Language?
We are planning to make it open source. We have video bot capabilities, which is being loved by our clients, which can be used during town halls, product launches etc. Employees and customers will be able to ask the questions to the virtual personal of a key person (like CEO. MD) of our client/organization. We have live dashboard for the analytics and sentimental analysis. This makes us one of the Top 10 most promising conversational AI platforms.
What do you think – will AI solutions such as Chatbots reduce jobs in the future?
The general fear is, AI is likely to cause job losses, yes, but there will also be job creation.
At CoRover, we believe that as each Organization embarks towards digitization — and especially AI-driven automation — it will enable them to serve, and expand to, larger market segments, invariably adding great efficiencies and value to companies, and as a result, a strong uplifting of the entire economy. This will cause a fluid mix of job creations too – new jobs in the field of AI itself will happen. There will be a need for more developers to create chatbots, for instance, and chatbots will be used in virtually every industry. And not just tech developers, there will be a need for many more trainers in AI, will be required to teach chatbots on how to act, behave and respond like a human.
From the perspective of digital transformation, what challenges do you see for the large public sector undertakings in India?
Thanks to their very size and the huge population they serve, India’s large public sector undertakings have not only massive customer bases, but also an equally large responsibility to keep their customers delighted. But possibly not all their customers are delighted customers when it comes to round-the-clock and accurate and effective support. And it is very important to keep customer-delight at high levels. We are strongly experienced and placed to enable not only our own clients but also the large PSUs to leapfrog the value chain using state-of-the-art digital assistant solutions of CoRover. We’ve already seen the size and scale of the service delivery and the learning abilities the numbers of India’s biggest web platform IRCTC has been providing every day to improve the service in a cyclic fashion through the Ask DISHA bot.
Any inputs for readers who want to know more about this smart field of software robots?
We believe that all enterprises, large or small, can get higher synergies in their operations through digital assistants. I personally lead the effort to host and to inform and explain to, and help, any business leadership that needs to learn about digital assistants and their value in general, and how our best-in-class services can help them achieve their business objectives.
The market is flush with digital-assistant-providing companies. How are you better than your competitors?
I won’t comment on our competitors; all I can say is that the size, width and depth of experience we have had with our biggest client’s customers, thanks to having handled more than 2 billion interactions with more than 70 million unique users, is, I daresay, unmatched in the industry across India.
CoRover chatbots or digital assistants are very easy to integrate, and the integration is equally speedy too – not more than 10 minutes.
We walk the talk. Many big players in the chatbot space provide the platform but not the solution, and even they don’t have a chatbot on their website.
We have the platform, we provide the end-to-end solution, and we do provide managed services to make the chatbot successful by training the ML data to improve usage and accuracy.
We have a Video Bot, we have a Live Analytics Dashboard to see the accuracy and the feedback, and the trends.
We have an ad server to show targeted ads in the Chatbot based upon geographical and demographic data. The ads can be external or internal.
Who are your monetization partners?
We work with Google, inMobi, Amazon, Cashkaro, Hungama, Readware, Gamezop, Flipkart, Amazon and others. Our Co-Sell Partner is Microsoft.
Which brands have been showing their ads on your Chatbot?
There are many brands, like Facebook, Mercedes, Reliance, Google, ICICI, redBus, Emirates, Makemytrip, Tata and other such national and international brands including Fortune 500 companies that show ads on our Chatbot directly or indirectly.
But going forward, the monetization focus would be more on license/usage base fees, much more than the ad revenue.
You actually created CaaS in India, and since the big success of Ask DISHA on IRCTC, have piqued the interest of many public and private sector organizations and bodies which are seriously planning to go straight into using CaaS for customer engagement, acquisition and more. Which are the companies you have been approached by, or you are in discussions with for your CaaS?
Yes, as I said, our chatbot Ask DISHA for IRCTC has been phenomenally successful, and a lot of the credit goes to the team at IRCTC, which has been very positive, very well informed, and supremely progressive.
Now, thanks to Ask DISHA’s brilliant performance on the IRCTC ecosystem, CoRover is in serious conversations with very smart and progressive organizations across diverse sectors — like there is a major Life Insurance player, a large state-wide commercial bank, one of the biggest and most respected bodies in the BFSI space, even a leading natural gas distribution company. The interest from multiple companies, and the wonderful relevance of chatbots as a truly engaging and valuable tool for near-instant customer-query resolution for the best customer support and thereby satisfaction, is something everyone now believes in.
In fact, even for SMEs, business consultants are recommending that they use chatbots as a marketing tool to engage their existing and potential customers.
Would you like to name any of the organizations you said you are in discussions with?
I’m afraid I am not at liberty to do so; not at this point.
A related question: How informed and evolved are companies today, especially the public sector companies that float tenders seeking the provision of chatbots for customer- and marketing support, about the modern-day, digital realities and ways of operations to deploy chatbots? Do their RFP documents have analogue or old-fashioned terms and conditions in this digital age? Because that would be one way of gauging their progressive thinking is the way they have updated – if they have – their tender documents. How well do they understand what is required to provide the service type that you, ie Co Rover, have created — ie, Chatbot As A Service? What has your experience been like?
That’s a very good question. We see chatbot RFPs being floated from private, public and government organisations – globally. However, in India, we as a start-up are not eligible for some of the RFP conditions as one of them has kept profitability and huge turnover a pre-requisite, which is very difficult for innovative but start-up organisations like us. How can we maintain profitability during a phase when we are investing so much of effort and money into R&D?
But having said that, some of the organisations have actually agreed to make exceptions on the ‘prior experience’ clause to the DIPP/DPITT-approved start-ups. But not everyone has given that exemption. I urge all organisations to see the functional and technical capabilities and pricing of the start-up before shortlisting an old-world behemoth that doesn’t provide end-to-end solutions with proven deliveries, to create chatbots.
I am very excited that everyone is embracing AI implementation now in the form of chatbots, which will be very beneficial to the organisations and also to their end users, because even though a lot of information is available everywhere, getting the right information quickly is the key which a good and successfully deployed chatbot would provide.