An AI-Powered Conversational Platform for Enterprise with Ram Menon from Avaamo

The way in which we interact with computers has evolved rapidly, especially over the past few years. For a long time, we only used keyboards and mice to control computers. Then suddenly touchscreens became widely adopted.

And now we’re entering a new phase where the screen is removed entirely, and we engage with computers using our voice. We’re only at the very beginning of this era, but Ram Menon is leading the way forward with his company, Avaamo, which offers a customizable conversational platform for enterprise, powered by artificial intelligence.

Avaamo technology is being used by major national and global brands, such as Ericsson, Volkswagen, and Anthem.

More information:

Ram brings over two decades of experience in enterprise software. Previously Ram was the President of Social Computing at TIBCO. He founded the division and built the business from scratch into a leader in Social Business Software with 9 Million paid users in just two years. 

Earlier in his stint at TIBCO, he was Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for eight years, leading the company’s marketing and product strategy efforts to support  growth from $200M -$1B. Prior to joining TIBCO, Ram was  with Accenture, a global consulting firm, where he specialized  in supply chain and e-commerce strategy consulting with  Global 500 companies.

DISCLAIMER: Below is an AI generated transcript. There could be a few typos but it should be at least 90% accurate. Watch video or listen to the podcast for the full experience!

Ram Menon 0:00
Can you set up 190,000 appointments in three months? Right? And so our AI technology was able to accept inbound calls, actually have a conversation and set up the appointment and then input data into their appointment scheduling system and send this person SMS confirmation, or without human intervention.

Alexander Ferguson 0:34
Welcome to UpTech Report. This is our applied tech series UpTech Report is sponsored by terribly learn how to leverage the power of video at Today I’m joined by my guest Ram Menon who’s based in Los Altos, the heart of Silicon Valley, and California. He’s the founder and CEO of Avaamo. welcome, Ram. Good to have you on. Hi, there. Thanks for having me. Now of Avaamo is a conversational AI platform. They’re focused on helping enterprises basically create and deploy AI powered applications and around conversation. Help me understand Ron, like, what was the problem in the enterprise space that you’re like? They’re they’re facing this, I gotta solve this. What did you see?

Ram Menon 1:12
Yeah, I mean, it’s a great question. I think there are two components to the question. So one component to the question is the way people are kind of transforming human computer interaction. So that’s the first part. So for the last 40 years, human computer interaction has primarily been about inputting through a keyboard. And then in the last 10 years, we are moved even further and which we input using a touch, exemplified by the phone. And now we are moving into the third phase, which is we’re moving beyond the screen. Right? There is no screen. And the opportunity to converse with your computer is so big, so large, and manifests itself in so many different ways. So we already have Alexa, we have Google, you’re talking to your microwave, you’re talking to your refrigerator. And what we do is we really focus on what we know best, which is providing and building AI based conversational applications for large enterprises. So that could mean something as simple as getting order status. Or it could mean as complex as understanding whether you have a migraine, and what kind of neuro physician, or just your primary care you want to talk to because of your migraine. So that’s what we do. At a broad level.

Alexander Ferguson 2:55
This shift, I love kind of you showing the phases of inputting a keyboard, then using our smartphone as a touch. But now voice it’s like consumers are expecting and are used to it, and now it’s shipped, it’s being assumed I’m going to get the same experience with all the organizations I work with. Did you just like wake up and just say, I love AI conversational stuff, I want to help enterprises. Do this help me understand the story of of how Obama got started?

Ram Menon 3:25
Well, you know, it’s a it’s an interesting point. You know, before abramo, I was part of the founding team of a company called TIBCO. And what TIBCO did simply 20 years ago, seems very normal today, which was connecting applications to applications. And what we realized is just like the opportunity today, that’s a very secular opportunity. It went on for 20 years, multibillion dollar companies were created. Right? So in the same way, when we were thinking of founding abramo, we realized that the ability for humans to connect to computers, to applications to workflows is a secular opportunity for the next 1012 years. Right. So we wanted to build a platform company that would basically be able to reflect that switch, and be able to handle handle multiple types of conversations. The conversation you have for support because your Android phone doesn’t work is very different from the conversation you’re having with your healthcare provider because you need your claims process. And that requires a level of not just voice but a level of Understanding a level of understanding sentiment, a level of understanding syntax, a level of understanding dialects level of understanding the domain, which is, you know, healthcare is very different from manufacturing. And that requires AI. So if you combine voice, synthesis, intelligence and context, you’re able to create, and in some places replace a human being who has been picking up the phone to answer your questions for the last 3040 years. So that’s the point. And that translates into managing higher call volumes, using automation to reduce call center costs. And most important, the most important thing for people they don’t want to wait.

Alexander Ferguson 6:00
Everybody hates waiting. For sure. You state all these the data of how AI and conversational AI can can play a role in the enterprise world. How understand like, What drives you? I mean, you don’t know you don’t wake up in the day, oh, I want to help reduce stats for these enterprise companies like what what really drives you? It makes you want to do this?

Ram Menon 6:23
Well, yeah, it’s just doing things that have never been done before. Right? So we had to invent a whole bunch of new technologies. See, what we’re doing? You know, people in the valley like to call it deep tech. But it’s like, you’re literally inventing How do you understand certain things? Right? How do you, like I said, you know, a human being processes this. Just almost like in milliseconds, Hey, I got a headache, a headache? Do you have a migraine or a vascular headache? A human being does that. Without it? I mean, cognition, like how do you do cognition? Using soft code, right. And then I think that by itself becomes very interesting. And then we get to the next thing, we have built interesting technology, we have 17 patterns, how our customers tend to apply it in ways that we haven’t thought before. But you know, and so that’s exciting. It just keeps going.

Alexander Ferguson 7:32
You, you, you start on the engineering side, and then moved into more than marketing, like, what was your progression and your your focus? personally?

Ram Menon 7:39
Well, um, you know, I, I was, I’m an engineer by training. And at my previous company, I used to run products, and I complained so bitterly to my den CEO about how we couldn’t market it well, that he put me in charge of marketing.

Alexander Ferguson 7:58
That’s one way to get a job is complaining that is not Yeah, well, yeah, for what

Ram Menon 8:01
you wish for, right. So. So. So I was Chief Marketing Officer of typical for a very long time, probably longer than I should, like, 10 plus years, and I grew, we grew to go from a $200 million Silicon Valley company, to $1.8 billion, multi segment, multi platform company. So I have the oldest cars. And so starting llamo, I knew I was, you know, building a platform company is hard. And it’s been fun. It’s been fun.

Alexander Ferguson 8:34
Being able to communicate the value of as you say, it’s a technology where you’re like inventing new things, and like changing the way people think it’s not an easy and easy thing. So if you had to think back, whether it’s a typical are already here have a favorite failure on that you learn from in order to be able to help educate people on the value of a new product, new tech, what comes to your mind of a favorite failure?

Ram Menon 8:58
Well, I think I think a lot of us in Silicon Valley get really kind of excited about the technology. And, and then we wax about it. And I think, you know, I wouldn’t call it a failure, but in in the early days of Obama, Obama, still a young company, we would spend so much time explaining how we do unique things. And, and it was kind of very difficult because the customer was not able to grasp like why most people haven’t done this before. So they are taking a risk, even talking to you. Right. And most people don’t understand AI beyond what whatever they read in the latest technology magazine. So if you’re taking a risk you You don’t understand this. And you’re talking to people who are obviously the smartest guys in the room, you scare a lot of people. Right? On the flip side, let me explain how we did this and applied it to a current problem. So for a very large hospital, in the United States, and and and in the northeastern United States, one of the problems they had was trying to get a whole bunch of COVID vaccine scheduling appointments done. Quickly. The traditional way to do it, would it be, hey, you know, and listen, you know, I’m touching a lot of people I need, I need a call center, I need a call center where somebody can speak Arabic, or, you know, Cantonese, and I can Vietnamese. And then I’ve got to stand up all these people, I’ve got to stand up a system that’s going to like handle appointments, change in appointments. And you know, the whole story of COVID, there was like, you know, websites that were just completely in the early days of this year, early months of this year. So what we were able to do is, the person running the project, did not want to hear about AI, did not want to hear about how good our speech synthesis was. All he wanted was, can you set up 190,000 appointments in three months? Right. And so Rei technology was able to accept inbound calls, actually have a conversation, and set up the appointment, and then input that into their appointment scheduling system, and send this person SMS confirmation, all without human intervention. Right. And when the number of appointment requests increased, you didn’t have to hire more call center people, you didn’t have to set up a new adjacent office staffed, all you do is add a few more blades on the server. Right. So so that is a good example of where when we started the company, we didn’t think about going or we didn’t think about COVID scheduling. But it’s been applied in very innovative ways by our customers.

Alexander Ferguson 12:35
The ability of the technology to work, as as you described where it’s just is able to make it happen that conversational I’m sure it didn’t happen overnight. Can you share like some of the progress of you mean? Well, let’s start with me. What is AI? You just define it for me like frame your the way you see it? And then how you guys have been working on it?

Ram Menon 12:59
Yeah, I mean, I think I think the point is, you know, AI is now an umbrella term that, you know, we call it AI watching. You know, everything has to have an AI in it. But I think for us AI is simply understanding people and executing on a request, just like a human being. That’s all right. So So let’s take the simplest example, inbound calls, right? We’re able to automate, automate all these repetitive calls, hey, I needed an appointment with Dr. Bob. There’s like 50 people going for that appointment. And the poor person was picking up the phone, every time they pick up the phone and say hello, that’s dollars, that’s $20, or whatever it is, right? So how do you how do you listen to this and say, okay, Dr. Bob’s not available, you know, Joe’s available or whatever that to us can be done using AI. So that’s the way we think of AI, which is executing an intelligent interaction that a human being would do. Or another way of explaining it is executing an interaction without human intervention, depending on how you want to

Alexander Ferguson 14:32
structure that sentence, a lot of conversation around also is is if it’s playing this role of being able to understand requests and then be able to act on it, it can take the role of what someone else will be doing. What do you say to people when they say, well, AI is just going to come and take all the jobs away?

Ram Menon 14:49
No, you know, I think I think this is kind of what people want to write about. So that they that’s clickbait to me. Right. So I think The point is, I think there’s a study that says there’s 250 billion calls made every year, for some reason or the other. And in the status of my claim, I need an update on my order, there has to be a better way. Right? So the second thing is 98% of customers like you and me. This most important thing they want is, don’t make me wait. Right? So we are catering to these very important things that have become kind of the bane of our culture. Right. Now, in terms of jobs, what what this does is, it’s kind of like, you know, what, the actual human being is now elevated to handle more complex tasks. Right. And things that are not repeted. I mean, there’s still a lot of artificial and artificial intelligence. So we’re not at a point where the AI can completely replace a human being. So what you’re doing is, in some sense, I feel over the next three to five years, you’re just elevating the skill set of the human beings and what they’re going to do to higher paying jobs, honestly, we’re just kind of what it is, right? It’s kind of like what what you would see, you know, 50 or 60 years ago, you know, you would have somebody using a wheelbarrow, and a shovel to kind of, you know, fix the road. But now you would have a highly paid person who’s running a paver, or who’s driving an excavator doing the same thing, much more scale job, requires more work requires more skill. That’s kind of the way I think I would look at it, the rest of the stuff that noise is clickbait.

Alexander Ferguson 17:14
This growth of AI and everything, as you talked about also comes into play for students or entrepreneurs that are wanting to either learn or, or get a job in it or or build a business around it. If you were to provide advice to someone around this, what what would you say? Or rather advice, maybe there’s something they should ignore? There is a dose out there, you would say don’t do that, but do this.

Ram Menon 17:38
Yeah, I think I think it boils down to one thing and one thing alone, solve a real problem first, and work backwards. Right, I think I think the world of AI is currently full of solutions looking for a problem. Because it’s cool. You know, I can do this model. I can do a million data sets. But you know, can you apply it? And I think that’s the biggest advice I would give people because, you know, start backwards, as opposed to just kind of going Gaga and running victory laps about technology.

Alexander Ferguson 18:23
For for you, everything from typical to to Obama, this is now the first company that you’ve led as CEO. If you think of some of insights that you’ve learned, and maybe the biggest thing that you’ve learned over the past five, six years, no, sorry, seven, excuse me, 2014 bits since you started. What has has been the biggest contributor to your your own personal growth in leading the company?

Ram Menon 18:54
I think I think there are two things that matter when you start a large company, or sorry, when you start out kind of what we call here, a venture backed company and new technology. And those are two things that are not celebrated. Right? One is persistence. Right? When you’re doing new stuff, you’ll never get it right the first time. Right. And, and the second thing is, you know, talking to your customer. And I think one of the things we in Silicon Valley as a tribe do is we celebrate a lot of things, but usually either failure. We celebrate failure, which is okay. But we don’t celebrate persistence. Right. I mean, for every for every company. There’s suddenly a rocket ship. That was 10 years or seven years or five years behind on getting things just dead wrong and fixing it, and iterating it. And I think that’s something that we just don’t pay attention to, you know, and the second day is really understanding your customer. Right? And a lot of people just push technology out. And when you say understanding your customer, it’s not just a customer problem. It’s, will he pay for it? How much will he pay for it? How much is he willing to take untested technology? And because the benefits are giving him so large, that he’s willing to be your guinea pig. So so it’s not just a problem, you may have a solution to the problem. But you’ve got to know how much they’re going to pay for it. Right. So I don’t know, that’s my big question.

Alexander Ferguson 21:07
But for that point of persistence, when you have felt, whether overwhelmed or focused or lost focus temporarily. What did you do? Like, what questions do you ask or what did you do to help keep that persistence?

Ram Menon 21:25
I mean, just just realizing that you don’t get it right the first time. That’s all I mean, it’s just kind of being self aware. And also making your employees or, you know, self aware that you just don’t get it right first time. You know, and I mean, different people are different ways. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg famously said, you know, move fast break things. But that’s not true either. When you deal with enterprise companies, like I do, and my customers are Intel, Ericsson. They don’t like things to break. No breaking, no breaking, breaking. Hey, see, like, so you’ve gotta get it figured out first. And then make

Alexander Ferguson 22:15
a great, yeah. Have you always been in enterprise? focused? Yes. large enterprise? It What? What are the unique challenges with enterprise that that? Because I’ve been having a lot of conversations with SAS company, the enterprise, and it’s its own bucket compared to small business or mid market,

Ram Menon 22:30
it’s a completely different planet. Right. So on the plus side, is, enterprises truly appreciate new technology that solves a problem? Right? Because everything is for a scale. It’s all about scale, right? So for example, in I talked about healthcare, you know, when you talk about healthcare, those jobs have not yet gone to the Philippines or to India, because of data privacy laws, if it’s in Denver, somebody is picking up the phone in Denver. Now, when that phone’s picked up, and there’s a cost, if it’s an enterprise Class, Class customer, that cost is multiplied quarter of a million times a month. They’re handling 250,000 calls. So if you’re able to handle one call, and do it, well, you can have a door and 50,000 calls that real money. Okay. So the first most important thing for enterprise is scale. Right? The second is, it shouldn’t break. So this whole idea of let’s fake it till we make it doesn’t really work. Because of its brain breaks. To use a credit crude, they’ll tell you don’t let the door hit, you’re behind on your way out. Just leave. Right. So I think that’s the second thing. And the third thing for a small company like us, and for that matter, any sass company is if you are able to provide one and two, they can be incredibly loyal. There is no incentive if you’re delivering value. Yeah, why not? Right. So those three things make the whole enterprise thing very different. Right? And how they look at new technology, how they buy new technology, how they stick with new or technology they see value in and if you play it right, that can be the three legs on which you build a lasting enterprise software company.

Alexander Ferguson 24:59
The ability To communicate value and market that’s also very differentiated in enterprise, you don’t market the same way you don’t, you know, get new customers what, what have you seen is worked well marketing wise to be able to grow an enterprise focused company.

Ram Menon 25:18
Just in the enterprise, there’s only two things that matter to things. And it’s been proven time and time again, for me. Who else is doing it? and show me that’s all. The rest doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter who your investors are, what your brand is, how pretty your logo is. Doesn’t matter who else is doing it? So I’m not the only area.

Alexander Ferguson 25:52
And then show me Everyone who else is doing it doesn’t have to be your own client. It could just be others who are adopting this technology, or does it need to be another of your clients?

Ram Menon 26:00
Absolutely another of your clients because I’m finna invest and risk myself on you are a shitty little company nobody’s ever heard of. Why should I? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a perfectly valid thing and I respect that.

Alexander Ferguson 26:14
How do you get your first one though that the chicken before the egg

Ram Menon 26:17
Well, that’s why that’s what separates you know, kind of the real and entreprise enterprise entrepreneurs from the rest? I

Alexander Ferguson 26:27
think, no, no secret sauce you can share isn’t a secret. You just got to be grit and persistence. Yeah. For you, as a leader are there are there any books that you have read, enjoyed or recommend or give to others?

Ram Menon 26:45
I don’t know, I just don’t see kind of books or, or, or eat out a lot of this stuff is not in a textbook. It becomes your own personal journey. And to me, the book of hard knocks, or the school of hard knocks is the best. You know, you got mistakes, you got to make mistakes yourself. And you got to be self aware. And and, you know, and learn from that. Because you know, no book teaches you there is no straight line path.

Alexander Ferguson 27:23
You’re obviously having the right team, being able to lead right team allows you to be able to deliver such a unique technology itself. How do you how do you build the right team? like where do you look for the right talent? And when you’re hiring, you’re like, Oh, this will this will be the right person to add to our team? Just it’s for me, it’s very simple. Just hire people smarter than me. Yeah,

Ram Menon 27:50
then you don’t have to hire just like the best AI engineer. Because there are not a lot of AI engineers out there. You know? So hire smart people. And they’ll figure it out. Hmm.

Alexander Ferguson 28:08
So let’s title in the role, but more on that just their ability to Yeah,

Ram Menon 28:12
yeah. I mean, and that’s all that matters. I mean, you know, it’s just like one of those things. I mean, I don’t know, I think everybody looks for the silver bullet for everything. And I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. Hire smart people. I look for three things, you know, some indicator on how smart they are. The second is intellectual curiosity. And the third is persistence. Right. And those can be applied for a marketing job or for engineering job, it just doesn’t matter.

Alexander Ferguson 28:54
You mentioned earlier on the thing, one of the things that just drives you is is the just building something freshly new, like just being able to solve new truck new challenges. When it comes to technology and and conversational AI. What are you most excited about where it’s headed, and we’re both you are headed, but also the industry?

Ram Menon 29:13
I think like I said, I think the biggest thing is, is solving real problems. So I want so I’ll give you some boring details, as opposed to exciting details. So the ability to automate your call center is is one of the kind of most exciting things for a variety of reasons, right? From an industry standpoint, I would say something outrageous here, but I’ll go ahead and say there’s been very little in innovation beyond the invention of the one 800 number. Right after the way it had a number all we’ve done is put more people to pick up the phone Still answer the same old questions and still, like, play around the edges or reduce call weighting or give you a menu load, you know, whatever, right. So. So I think that I think is a huge, huge, huge opportunity and just solving one of the most consistent problems in business. Now think about it, whether you’re selling blades, or you’re selling Tesla’s at some point, you got a call to get something done. And the only thing you dread is waiting. Right? So zero call waiting is something that we do. Right. So that’s, I think, one one big part of what we are very, very, very excited about, right? Like, that’s so big of a problem that we can solve it in many different ways. Right? So I think the second thing, which also gets a bad rap, is the concept of using AI to make the interaction human. I believe in the next five years, that is the closest that the average person is going to come to experience AI, you see a AI Oh, it’s like behind your the recommendation engine, or you see the AI, that deciding how much premium you pay for your insurance. But you don’t really come into touch with AI, you know, like Iron Man does. Right? Yeah. So so so some of the areas are, you know, wises you know, you are able to build synthetic voices. And that’s a, that’s a huge area of interest for us. In other words, before I confuse everybody, there is a concept of a brand. A brand means colors. It means a logo, right? It means a certain packaging. But now in this area where you’re beyond the screen, it means a voice. So how do you build a voice that is not necessarily a celebrity who is just subbing for you. But a real synthetic voice, that might be a combination of multiple factors that is representative of your brand. So these are some of the exciting things that are going on.

Alexander Ferguson 32:38
I love both the best of the last part that giving the new tone and the right voice and being able to make it more human, it’ll be interesting to see how that progresses. The first one It’s been a while some call centers have been have been changed, or a whole new way to look at it. I love the focus on it. If I can play devil’s advocate, I know there are a lot of people out there, they’re frustrated with the some of the current automated systems where they just, they, it’s they they always would just want to press zero. How do you see the future of that? If people are like, No, no, I just want to talk to a person. How do you address that? How do you respond to that?

Ram Menon 33:18
Just that’s that’s a great point. So that is a reflection of how bad things are. So in our situation, right? You just got to have a better product that people want to use. I mean, it’s that simple. Right? So for example, you know, I just got the latest results of our and we’re like looking at this right? across all our customers, we have resolved 20 million calls in 2020. without human intervention, right? Our COVID scheduling has actually scheduled 40 million patients without human intervention. So the point is like the proof is in the pudding, if you are able to build an intuitive human like experience that gets the job done. You know, he doesn’t like because people want stuff to just get done. Right? So they don’t want to hear I don’t understand. Press zero to talk to an agent. Right? That’s failure. So that’s kind of the whole point. You have to build something that actually works and people are sensible

Alexander Ferguson 34:40
and they’ll use it. I think everyone is is wanting this a new wave of much smarter technology they can they can interact with speaking of just technology, I always like to ask this to we’re all consumers of it. Can you think of a of a cheap, cheaper tech or software that you’ve used in the last six months that you like?

Ram Menon 34:59
That’s a tough one. I mean, you know, I don’t use a lot of software. You know, I just don’t I mean, as a software guy, if I don’t build it, I don’t use it. But But you know, so I haven’t seen anything interesting. I use calm now, which is a kind of interesting app, or meditating. So I feel those are some, those are areas where technology has intervened, in the same way that I am. We are reducing human intervention. Right? So before, all you want to meditate, you would go to a meditation class. Right? Now you can do that with an app. And that’s interesting by its very nature, right? Where you’re reducing the human intervention and still giving some productivity gains to the person. So I think that would be a good example of what I think is interesting.

Alexander Ferguson 35:55
I love it, I love it. Well, I you’ve shared a lot both on on kind of the progression of where where interaction with the computer has been and where it’s going. Also the journey that you’ve been on and giving clarity that it’s, it’s not a, Okay, done, we figured it out. But it’s that that progression of iteration and learning. And also, I appreciate the future that you paint of voices we’re gonna have, we may even be able to choose your own voice if we want to interact with or unique brands will have a synthetic voice that we will be able to interact with in the future. Thank you so much for sharing this insight. For those that want to learn more about Avaamo. It is And you will be able to get a little bit more insights of some of the ways that they are serving a lot of different enterprise companies. Thanks again, Ron, for this conversation. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. We’ll see you all on the next episode of UpTech Report. Have you seen a company using AI machine learning or other technology to transform the way we live work and do business? Go to UpTech and let us know


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