Phil Fersht
CEO and Chief Analyst 
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Getting chatbot fatigue? Then upgrade to digital associates...
April 17, 2021 | Melissa O'BrienPhil Fersht

Let's cut to the chase folks... chatbots have struggled to gain much of a foothold in the corporate tech innovation stack.  However, our analyst Melissa O'Brien has spent the last few years studying how these engagement technologies are evolving deeper into the enterprise where they can truly augment staff and reduce a significant amount of their time, while driving a whole new digital way of engaging for both employees and customers... from the back office right through to the front. So let's take a look at which services firms are getting good at creating these digital associate workers for enterprises...

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Melissa, we've been observing the evolution of "conversation AI" for a good decade-plus now, so what's new?  has the pandemic driven more uptake?

The demand for conversational AI has exploded over the last year.  The automation tools we call digital associates were one of the digital superheroes of the pandemic, as conversational tools picked up the slack in handling volumes of interactions when human associates were not available due to a lack of work-from-home preparedness. Reduction in staff coupled with spike in volumes of interactions in many industries such as ecommerce created a burning platform. For many companies, this rapid and massive disruption resulted in accelerating digital initiatives already in play and pushing many lingering POCs into production mode.  Industries like travel and hospitality, which had a brief period of an incredible uptick in customer interaction volumes a year ago, have now developed conversational tools poised to address inevitable future surges driven by pent-up demand. 

Now that acceptance and adoption has increased significantly, the imperative is to move beyond the low-hanging fruit, the really simple and repetitive stuff, to really see what these tools are capable of. The next evolution of DA’s is a lot more about using ML and AI for conversational complexity, having a good design that fits into an overall experience strategy, and integration with enterprise systems in order to deliver greater value.  Many companies which hadn’t dipped a toe into this space pre-pandemic are struggling a bit with the learning curve now, where others that had a foundation built already are expanding their use cases.  Enterprises are now really looking at digital associates from an employee and customer experience perspective rather than only call deflection, efficiencies, and cost savings.  In many cases, we’ve seen them as effective tools for sales conversions and building brand loyalty.  So there are a lot more potential outcomes that companies are now looking to conversational AI to help achieve. 

Why do you think this space has struggled to attract the feverish hype of RPA and "dumb" back office automation?  What needs to happen to get the digital associate value proposition weaved into the whole intelligent automation and AI narrative?

I think part of the trouble is this market landscape is vast, the tools poorly defined and buyers are confused.  This is part of the reason we’ve taken to calling the tools “digital associates,” to convey that they are digital workers built to provide a tangible outcome.  Digital associates are not distinct segments like AI, automation, and analytics – in fact, they are tools that if designed properly use elements of all three to maximize their power.   The face of automation has been largely tied to RPA, a singular tool where a lot of the use cases are straightforward – the quick time to value in many of these tools makes it a fairly fast and easy win for certain processes.  With conversational AI, there’s a lot more nuance to think through employee and customer journeys, the complexity that is human language and interaction, and the connections that need to be made in disparate back end systems for them to operate in a meaningful way at the engagement layer.

Digital associates run the gamut of maturity, but often get associated with their simplest cousin, the chatbot.  Chatbot fatigue has been a real roadblock; 10+ years ago the fad was to slap an FAQ bot on every website, expecting it to deflect calls and create efficiencies.  More often they provided little help outside of website navigation, and created customer frustration and degraded the experience in the process.  So people who hearken back to those experiences will have an aversion to trying out conversational tools or be hesitant about their value.  This is obviously changing now as the real digital associates are starting to prove their worth. 

I think this is where the OneOffice helps people conceptualize the impact digital associates can have on an organization.  Firstly, start with an EX or CX focused outcome objective and design the DA backwards from there. As you’ve said yourself Phil, digital associates are augmenters of the human experience They start to add more value as they become more sophisticated and embedded in our processes.  And thinking in terms of the Triple-A Trifecta, the digital associates’ AI-powered brain is complemented by automation arms and legs to retrieve, report, update and transact.  Data is the fuel the associate ingests to produce insights (analytics) and achieve optimal performance, including the personalization users are expecting.   

And which suppliers are currently winning in this market, Melissa?  Both in terms of services and products?

Accenture, IBM and Cognizant took the top three spots respectively in our recent services Top Ten.  These providers demonstrated an impressive breadth of capabilities across industries and enterprise functions, both IT and business, and a depth of design, process and technology prowess.  While we didn’t include advisory firms in our assessment, focusing instead on BPO and IT services implementations, firms like KPMG and Deloitte have significant depth of expertise in developing solutions for clients in this area also.

On the products side, the number of vendors having some level of capability in this space is astounding. You’ve got the cloud providers which all have their platforms and developer suites, namely Google Dialog Flow & CCAI,  AWS Lex & Connect , Microsoft Luis & Power VA. And then your established OOB software firms like IPsoft and Kore.AI, and including some of the RPA firms such as Pega and NICE dabble in various forms of digital associates.  And we’ve been watching some interesting up and comers like last year’s “hottest hot vendor”, and most recently we’ve been briefed on XpertRule’s platform which comes in with an interesting value proposition focused on decisioning. 

We’re really seeing this as an ecosystem play right now, as most of the successful implementations we’ve seen have required fairly complex customizations and integration from the service providers. While the products players tend to focus on selling licenses, the service providers provide with industry knowledge, deep understanding of clients’ processes and design expertise to help companies think through employee or customer touchpoints and really map out what they want to accomplish.  And most of the service providers are completely technology agnostic, so they can come in and leverage an existing vendor relationship or preference or help evaluate vendors and select based on their requirements. 

How are the call center firms approaching digital associates - are they reacting to customer demand, or still fighting to protect the legacy "butts-on-seats" model?  Which ones are unafraid to disrupt the model and push conversation AI aggressively?

Many legacy contact centers still operate on FTE volumes and they’re safe for now because there’s still plenty of demand for labor-focused services (which is being driven quite a bit by growth in digital native companies whose rapid growth requires help to scale operations.)  But most of the contact center leaders have a balanced approach which strategizes with clients on digital-first customer journeys which include a blend of automation and agent support.  Concentrix is one of the most aggressive we’ve seen in this market, which landed at #9 in our recent report, the top ranking of any of the contact center pure plays.  The challenge that the CX players continue to have is that of brand perception.  They know that with the increase in self-service and automation that in many client engagements, if they don’t cannibalize their business another provider or vendor will. So they’ve built solid AI and automation capabilities for those clients with the appetite to work with them in that regard.  The trouble is that some enterprise tech leaders won’t consider a contact center to work with on emerging tech, so in order for them to really gain traction in this space, there’s a mindshare gap to bridge, especially with IT decision-makers. 

And finally, Melissa, how do you expect digital associates to evolve as we get used to new ways of working?  are they going to branch way beyond customer-facing solutions?

Customer service examples are the most ubiquitous, but digital associates have already spread well beyond that realm.  In the top ten, we saw a plethora of use cases in procurement, HR, IT helpdesk, finance, accounting, and much more.  One of the most prevalent examples we found was the prevalence of recruitment and HR bots.   We’ve seen conversational AI tools which can help shepherd a candidate through the application and interview process, and also offer employee support once onboarded, helping staff access, understand, and process important information around benefits and compensation, performance, and time reporting.  This is really a result of how accustomed we’ve become to automation in our consumer lives, that we expect to interact with digital ‘colleagues’ at work.  And while chat solutions are still very commonplace, I do think the future of this market lies in voice.  Not phone-based or intelligent IVR’s, but similar to virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri we’ve become so accustomed to in our consumer lives.  Voice is opening so many doors right now to create new ways for people to engage either with our work as employees or with companies to buy services and products.

Many of the examples we saw were also quite industry-specific solutions, and I think we’ll continue to see greater depth in those capabilities too.  Personalized menu customization for restaurant chain ordering, retail loan processing, and approval, program enrollment and Rx management for healthcare payers, and retail order status digital associates were just a few of the highly verticalized solutions we’ve seen.

One of the important topics I expect to see the industry tackle next is how these tools are supporting diversity and inclusion efforts. For example, service provider TTEC has developed a bot as part of a broader D&I offering which allows employees to ‘practice’ difficult conversations, around prejudices regarding race or gender for example, with the conversational AI tool.  The platform then provides feedback and advice on how to handle the conversation.  Another big one to unpack is how these tools play a role in influencing and in many cases reinforcing gender bias (did you know that “female” digital associates get greater adoption levels than male ones?).    We recently saw Accenture coming out with a non-binary offering as an option to address this.  I think we’ll see a lot coming from the top service providers which frame digital associates in the light of “ethical AI.”  How to ensure an ethical approach an important conversation to have, because emerging and increasingly sophisticated conversational tools will help shape our future reality, from the fun and entertaining, to potentially serious and unnerving.   The conversation is an extremely complex AI problem to solve, but with all the opportunities we’re seeing emerge, it feels like this is just the beginning of exploring the possibilities.

HFS premium subscribers can access the Digital Associates Top Ten Services report by clicking here

Time for the Foster posture as Mark puts his own stamp on IBM services
April 16, 2021 | Phil FershtSarah Little


When it comes to big stonking change and the new meshing of business and IT disciplines, let's talk to the ultimate wave-spotter: Mark Foster.  I met Mark a few decades ago when I was wearing button-downs and he was one of the key Group Chief Executives at Accenture. I've been very curious to catch up and see for myself what enticed Mark out of (what he dubs) "blissful semi-retirement" to lead the 250,000-strong services business at IBM. So let's dive in...

Phil Fersht, CEO and Chief Analyst, HFS Research: It’s great to get some time with you, Mark. You’ve been a well-known figure in strategy consulting for many, many years. I met you during your Accenture days, but not so much recently. I’d love to know a bit more about you, where you came from, and were you always intending on going into the services industry? Was this your goal when you were at university? 

Mark Foster, Senior Vice President, IBM Services: Well, probably not. My background is rather strange, insofar as I have a degree in Ancient Greek, Latin, and Ancient History. So, I spent the best part of all my school and university career studying languages that are now largely dead, and only readable in ancient texts. (Laughs)

Very early on, though, I had a sense that there was something happening around technology; it was going to be a really important thing to get involved with. My first job was joining Accenture back in 1983, what was then Arthur Andersen management consulting, where the first thing that happened was to be sent off to St. Charles to learn to code in COBOL. That was really the start of an involvement with technology that’s carried me through for a very long period of time.


“I had a grounding in technology, a grounding in what it can do to transform industries and business, and then also a career that evolved away from core technology…”


When I came here to IBM, I remembered that I learned to code in RPG III on the AS/400 back in a dim, distant day as well. I had a grounding in technology, a grounding in what it can do to transform industries and business, and then also a career that evolved away from core

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Are you Cloud Native? Of course you're not... so join us on 21st April
April 11, 2021 | Phil FershtTom Reuner

Still grappling with moving your operations into the Cloud?  Click here to grab your spot at the HFS Cloud Native digital roundtable on 21st April 10.00am-1.00pm ET

One word defines today’s business environment: Speed
April 09, 2021 | Phil Fersht

It needn't be hell... with Nigel
April 03, 2021 | Phil Fersht

Nigel Edwards is Chief Client Officer, HFS.  Click for LinkedIn and Bio

While we can speculate all day long about what businesses can do when they are given the huge amounts of someone else's money to burn, how about those that are employee-owned and make their own investments using the hard-earned money they actually earned themselves? 

When you look at the growth and success of HFS over the past 11 years to tackle competitors hundreds of times our size, there is one constant throughout the whole experience - the collective array of people who've made it all possible.  While you can buy successful brands, IP, methodologies, APIs, and algorithms, the most important asset you can accumulate is your people.

One such individual, whom I have known since the days just prior to founding HFS, is Nigel Edwards - an enthusiastic and affable character who's weathered the best of the Indian-heritage service providers namely Cognizant. Wipro and EXL, after earning his business and IT services stripes at Accenture in his earlier career.  It was time for "Nige" to take nearly three decades of blood, sweat, BPO and captives and lend it to HFS' long-suffering clients, crying out for a sense of reality and to exploit the current market turbulence.  Now there isn't too much to say about Nigel beyond the fact he's a lifelong Foxes fan (Leicester City), has played cricket with David Gower and gets beaten up in a boxing ring by his son almost daily... so let's hear a bit more from HFS' Chief Client Officer, Nigel Edwards:

Phil Fersht (CEO, HFS):  Before we get to all the work stuff, Nigel, can you share a little bit about yourself… your background, what gets you up in the morning?

The honest answer is that it’s a combination of my 6-year-old (the youngest of my 3 boys), the dog, or the sound of the refuse collection folk reminding me that I did not put out the recycling…

Seriously though, it’s the opportunity to do something creative.  My dad was in the construction industry for many years and he doubled up as a highly accomplished artist, sculptor, and writer. Even at 78 he is still pushing out new ideas each day in his quiet, unassuming but engaging

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HfS Research receives $223 million in Series C Funding to become the world's favorite tech analyst firm
April 01, 2021 | Phil Fersht

This injection of money is intended to expand HFS' cutting-edge research coverage across all core geographic locations, plugging the gaps the firm missed in recent years.  "Thank God we got the extra cash", exclaimed the firm's President for Research and Business Operations, Saurabh Gupta.  "With the recent pandemic, not being able to cover dynamics in emerging countries like Turkmenistan and Laos was holding us back.  Now we can really hit Gartner where it hurts most...".

HFS is most famous for inventing the industry known as RPA in 2012, before famously killing it off in 2019, only to see its memory kept alive by Gartner and Forrester, which persisted in believing the revenue numbers of firms that were eking out the last of their PR cash.  "I am so excited to fully restart the RPA myth now we have enough cash to throw at it," stated the HFS Founder and CEO Phil Fersht in a recent press conference that was barely audible over Webex. "Without RPA, we had to pretend technologies like Cloud were making a comeback, and even our sustainability analyst has been trying to muscle in on the action."  Later on, Fersht managed to resume the discussion over Zoom, where he added, "All we had to do was promise Hoden we'd bring RPA back to life and we'd get a sizeable check to invest pretty much anywhere we wanted.  I've convinced my head of research the next wave can be found in Turkmenistan and am funding a trip to escort him out there to view it first-hand.  Apparently, they scraped the government's mainframe green screen and managed to get a script to reproduce the content in a Windows app.  Now they're just waiting for Microsoft to give them a free bot to share it over their cloud network".

Details of the investment plans will be available soon when the firm applies for its long-awaited IPO, where it's rumored to claim it is worth at least $10 billion.  There is no reason why HFS will ever be worth anything close to that amount, but at least it gets PE firms excited enough to throw them more money and put out more meaningless press releases.

To learn more about HfS Research, please email [email protected].

# # #

Note to editors: Trademarks and registered trademarks referenced herein remain the property of their respective owners. 


Trevor McTrevor

HFS Research

[email protected]

And of course... this was an:

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10 things to think about, if you want to be a more successful and genuine person in this emerging economy
March 23, 2021 | Phil Fersht

It’s been quite the year hasn’t it, folks!  I don’t know about you, but this has proven to be a voyage of self-discovery for me personally as we build businesses that can thrive in a world where it doesn’t matter where you are anymore, where the rules of the game are being re-written in a way we could never have imagined a year ago. 

If you’d told me we’d be doing multi-million dollar deals over Zoom and holding the attention of a global industry captive for an entire day online while we shared experiences of vaccine brands, I would seriously try and shake myself out of this bizarre dream.  Not to mention the spate of billion-dollar-plus deals being constructed on the back of an envelope…

In fact, I may still be having the same bizarre dream while I sleep-write this, and will wake up shortly to check my seat and meal-selection on my next trans-Atlantic flight, so I hope my ten learnings from the past imaginary year of bizarreness are worth a read:

  1. Take control of your career. Whomever you are in today’s corporate world,  the playing field has been leveled – however, almost everyone you know relies on the same vehicles to get things done. You have more time than you’ve ever had to focus on covering all the bases of your professional and personal lives, so make this time count and prepare for the future with a new attitude of self-assurance and confidence.
  2. Be a great communicator. During his career heyday, my father was a world-famous scientist in protein science and biochemistry.  His one (career) piece of advice to me was “always assume stupidity in your audience”.  People love to hear you talk about the basics of what we do and build from there.  I have never veered from this advice and it always serves me well… and those who engage in my narrative have proven to be anything but stupid!
  3. Make a concerted effort to develop your relationships. While nothing beats a great dinner or a few glasses of good wine, beer, or whisky, the people you knew before the big change are still as important as ever, and you need to do what you can to keep them close and keep the camaraderie moving along.  Relationships got you where you are, and during these new times, it’s even more important to keep the dialog going.  Make time for the people who matter, and develop deeper relationships where you can.  Also, focus on more one-to-one dialogs with people than sitting through hours of turgid discussions with too many people… nothing beats the intimacy of a direct conversation where you can see each other and share your genuine thoughts, ideas and feelings. 
  4. Keep learning new things. No one has any excuse to keep doing the same old things the same way, and in today’s environment, you really don't want to become a dinosaur… post-covid world is definitely not dinosaur-friendly! If you are in sales, learn to sell over Zoom;  if you’re in marketing… learn cool new apps to run promos, get familiar with analytics that help you understand your market, and make publications look awesome;  if you’re in finance, put yourself on some data science courses;  if you’re in IT learn how to cloudify business functions and understand the context.  And if you’re ready to break free of the corporate treadmill, there is no better time to start your own business and reel in some clients.
  5. Show your emotions more freely. Don’t you prefer to know how people really feel about things?  Or if you’re pissing someone off?  And doesn’t it feel good to get things off your chest, instead of letting them simmer for a long time until you blow up like a pressure-cooker?  We have no choice but to preserve/build digital relationships with people, so be more expressive, and people will know you better, and maybe they’ll be more expressive in return. 
  6. Demonstrate your true values. We can peek into each others’ homes, hear our kids screaming and dogs barking… so why not peer a bit deeper into what makes us think the way we do?  There are just too many issues conflicting our world these days, and it helps to share some of our views and beliefs – when it is appropriate.  While it’s wise to avoid politics (unless it’s plainly apparent you’re with like-minded people), it’s healthy to discuss how to manage people better, the culture in which we like to work, how to cope better with stress, how to get a better balance between work life, health and family life.  It’s also healthy to discuss how to balance diversity issues in the workplace, ensure equal opportunities for candidates when we are hiring for roles, respect our planet more, and what we can do collectively as an organization to address sustainability issues.  Because if we never share our values, we can never learn from each other, and we can never evolve with how we think and act. This also means we need to avoid public shaming of people for behaviors that some people may construe as racist or sexist. That only creates deeper divisions between people and does nothing to promote better attitudes.
  7. Make peace with people you value. It’s so easy to fall out with people these days when tensions and stress levels are running high… but it’s also just as easy to smooth things over and get relationships in a better place.  It’s also easy to reconnect with folks you’d fallen out with years ago and find new areas of common value – bury that hatchet!  The modern business culture is so relationship-driven these days, so drop the ego and cultivate relationships with people who matter. 
  8. Move on from people who don’t appreciate you. And on the flip side, those people who just use you when they need something… aren’t you just sick and tired of the take, take, take, and never getting anything back?  These people are already getting left behind, and you need to move on from them.  It’s all about valuing each other, listening to each other, sharing ideas, and mutually helping each other out.
  9. Take the higher ground. How many times do you get pulled into petty squabbles, and you suddenly realize “why am I bothering? This really isn’t important to me”.  Always take a deep breath and think about your higher goals and consider whether you need to fight every battle and distract yourself from the war you need to win?  This isn’t being “political”, it’s simply smart about how you handle yourself.
  10. Don’t forget those who got you here. One of my most important rules is never to forget the helping hands you’ve had during your quest for greatness.  People who supported you know what they did and really appreciate it when you recognize them for it. I have lost count of all the favors I have done for people over the years, but I do remember when someone mentions they appreciated it – even if it’s years later.  However, those who just “take, take, take” get struck off my list pretty fast these days – who has time for the entitled liberty-takers who want whatever they can get when they ask for it?

 Peace Out... ;) 

Can we get back to a world where we engage with each other again?
March 21, 2021 | Phil Fersht

'I look forward to a day when a company lost business because of how they handle diversity'
March 07, 2021 | Nischala Murthy KaushikPhil Fersht

I spoke with HFS Research CEO Phil Fersht for his thoughts on gender diversity and building inclusive organizations, why we need women at the workplace, how the industry has evolved over the past decade, and ideas for the future to make significant progress for the case and cause of #womenatwork.  A one of its kind and exclusive interview in which Phil shares unfiltered reflections and intriguing insights.

Nischala: So Phil, firstly, thanks for your time to do this interview with me. As you know, the topic of #WomenAtWork is very close to my heart.

I’d like to start with a basic question - Why do you think we should have more women in the workplace?

Phil: Thanks for doing this, Nischala. Appreciate all your initiatives around women at the workplace.

Coming to your question - Firstly, I think that there’s a shortage of talent in the workplace, particularly creative talent. I work in a knowledge industry, where we need creative people - good writers, thinkers, and communicators. In many cases, women are outstanding in these areas, especially writing and communicating.

If women aren’t an active part of the workforce, I do feel that we’re missing out on a lot of talent, which is critical for business growth. I do recognize that many women disappear from the workplace when they have kids or caring for the needs of the family - and they don’t come back.  Some women come back, and a minimal number are tremendously successful, but not

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OneOffice: Where data is the strategy, automation the discipline, AI the refinement
March 07, 2021 | Phil Fersht

While the last year has blown our minds with the sheer amount of change it has invoked on our professional and family lives, what is has achieved - more than anything - are these two factors:

  • No more flashy bullshit. There is no room for solutions that are confusing, designed to make people look special, but ultimately pathetic in real value and execution.  
  • Data and processes are inextricably linked. The focus on value has shifted firmly to the strategic value of data and how designing processes can help you achieve the data outcomes that create the value.

Bottom-line: We need to understand that data is the strategy and how the data cycle works to get us ahead of our markets. Here are five steps we must take:

  1. Get The Data to Win In your Market. This is where you must align your data needs to deliver on business strategy.  This is where you clarify your vision and purpose.
  2. Re-think processes to get the data, Then you must re-think what should be added, eliminated, simplified across your workflows to source this critical data.
  3. Design your new operational workflows in the cloud. There is simply no option but to have a plan to design processes in the cloud over three-tier web-architected applications.  In the Work-from-Anywhere Economy, our global talent has to come together to create our borderless, completely digital business.  This is the true environment for real digital transformation in action.
  4. Automate processes and data.  Automation is not your strategy.  It is the necessary discipline to ensure your processes provide the data - at speed - to achieve your business outcomes. Hence you have to approach all future automation in the cloud if you want your processes to run effectively end-to-end.
  5. Apply AI to data flows to anticipate at speed. Once you have successfully automated processes in the cloud, it is easy to administer AI solutions to deliver at speed in self-improving feedback loops.  This is where you apply digital assistants, computer vision, machine learning, and other techniques to refine the efficacy of your data.  AI is how we engage with our data to refine ourselves as digital organizations where we only want a single office to operate with agility to do things faster, cheaper, and more streamlined than we ever thought possible.  AI helps us predict and anticipate how to beat our competitors and delight our customers, reaching both outside and inside of our organizations to pull the data we need to make critical decisions at speed.