Facebook M: Taking the fight to Siri and Cortana, or tomorrow’s contact centre?

14th Jan 2016

As consumers we're all becoming increasingly familiar with personal assistants such as Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Google Now.

Whenever we want to know what the weather's like, hear the latest football results or find out the capital of Denmark, these virtual assistants can usually give us the answers we need.

However, Facebook looked to take things a step further with the soft introduction of M – its virtual personal assistant that sits within Messenger. Named after Moneypenny from the James Bond films, Facebook suggest that M is differentiated by its ability to not just answer queries but actually complete tasks by supplementing its knowledge base with a team of live agents.

Available initially to just a few hundred San Francisco Facebook Messenger users, Facebook suggested that M will expand slowly over time eventually reaching everyone. With some 700 million Messenger users worldwide, this is starting to look a little bit like a major contact centre operation!

But is the Facebook M concept really that innovative? Staffed by Facebook M Trainers with customer service backgrounders, it really doesn't sound that different from the kind of concierge service that American Express has been offering for decades. Admittedly, Facebook is revamping the concierge offering for the digital age, but how new is it really?

Virtual Agent style support has been around in our industry for some while, with examples including Nuance's Nina offering or IBM's increasingly powerful Watson solution. These technologies are getting better year-by-year, and the more progressive contact centres are now starting to embed intelligent virtual agent support right at the heart of their digital customer service journeys. Central to their success has been the ability to escalate to a chat agent should the virtual agent interaction get stuck.

So is M likely to take-off? Or might it prove to be more of a marketing ploy – a bit like Amazon Mayday, which although it got people talking about Amazon from a customer service perspective perhaps never really brought video customer service mainstream.

I suspect that Facebook are trying to take customer service forward with M, but it really is early days. Certainly there's been a lot of momentum around Messenger of late, so it provides an impressive platform for Facebook's M ambitions. It'll be interesting to see how the concept plays out, and also whether other contact centre operators start looking at the technology being used more seriously.

I also suspect that if Facebook does successfully scale its M service, it will need to rely as much on traditional best practice contact centre capabilities as its digital expertise. I'll be looking out particularly for how many 'M Trainers' Facebook puts behind the service, and resourcing and planning experts will be keen to see whether the company gauges its staff levels correctly. They'll certainly need a good workforce management process in place.

Facebook must be banking on the fact a large proportion of the customer support triggered by their M service could be automated. However, given the open-ended nature of Facebook M queries, the requirement to engage with third party suppliers will inevitably require working with some partners who simply cannot match Facebook's level of automation and insight. This will certainly prove a driver for improved self-service, which may in turn remove the requirement for those users to engaging M in the first place.

This whole idea of asking Facebook M to handle a task that could involve an as yet unspecified third party could also prove challenging. I don't know of that many organisations that allow you to do things on the behalf of someone else, so the potential for introducing additional customer frustration could be significant.

However, it's important not to overlook the sheer volumes of data that Facebook can bring to this task. Their insight into customers is vast, their data currency will be huge from a marketing perspective, and perhaps the inevitable costs of staffing a service such as M will prove an acceptable price to pay.

From a personal perspective, the sooner they bring this service to the UK the better. I can't wait to try and outsource my blog-writing to a friendly Facebook M Trainer. Perhaps they'll be able to leverage their unique insight to ensure that my thoughts are only targeted at those readers who they know will be interested in what I've got to say ;)

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