PODCAST

It’s Gonna Get Ugly: Q&A With TouchCommerce Chair Jeff Stiefler

Jeff Stiefler, Chairman of TouchCommerce, is a former president of American Express and CEO of IDS Financial Services. He also was the CEO of banking outsourcer Digital Insight, now part of Intuit. Stiefler spoke recently with ECT News Network interviewer Blake Glenn about technology and the economy.

The financial crisis sweeping the U.S. economy will cut a wide swath of destruction that will include the fast-growing technology sector.

He predicts a tightening of capital markets, including both venture capital and debt financing; firms conserving their cash and reducing expenses to weather the storm; a significant rise in business failures due to the inability to access needed financing and a slowdown in purchasing by corporate consumers of technology services and products.


Listen to the podcast (18:13 minutes).


Changing Priorities

Firms across the board will be cutting back on technology projects and focusing on those that are mission critical and those that provide proven return on investment. Projects that merely streamline an administrative function, for example, most likely will be deferred, he said.

In fact, he suggests that the acquisition of technologies that increase sales, reduce costs or improve customer retention could actually increase.

When asked about the role technology can play in the crisis, Stiefler quickly points out that there is no technology solution to this crisis. However, the technology sector will continue to be a driver for the U.S. economy, he said.

Here are some excerpts of the interview:

E-Commerce Times: There’s a big elephant in the room right now, which is the financial crisis that’s going on that is impacting the entire economy. Because of your deep background in technology and your background in financial services, I just want to get, first of all, your general perspective on the financial crisis.

Jeff Stiefler:

I’m not sure I have any more information than anybody else who reads newspapers or watches news on television or listens to it on the radio. Clearly, we’ve gotten ourselves into a position where, for a variety of reasons, institutions have not been able to bail themselves out of credit-related problems and the government has had to step in in a major way to help them do that. It’s, I think, a very unfortunate turn of events, and it’s going to create a deep set of problems that we’re going to have to work our way out of as a country, but we clearly will work out of them, it’s just going to take some time.

ECT: From your perspective, what kind of impact do you think this crisis is having on the technology industry, whether it’s in terms of getting loans, or getting venture capital, or any other kind of impact? What kind of impact do you see happening right now?

JS:

Getting capital in any form is always challenging for firms, whether they’re younger firms trying to get venture capital or more established firms trying to raise debt. As a consequence of that, companies are shepherding cash, which means they’re not using their cash to expand in the way that they’d normally use, and they’re trying as hard as they can to reduce expenses wherever they can to help them use as little cash as possible. That’s true across the board, it’s true in companies of all sizes and in all industries. It’s probably more true in financial services than it is in other places because that sector’s been the hardest-hit, but it’s a condition that exists everywhere.

ECT: Do you think that this is going to cause a shakeout among some of those emerging growth technology companies that may have received some venture capital but may not have enough money, or have the wherewithal either to raise the next round of financing or the money to make it through this financial crisis. What do you see happening there?

JS:

I think there’s going to be a significant rise in business failures of all types, because again there’s very little access to capital, and buyers of the services of these venture-backed companies will often be cutting back on their purchases, so the cash coming into these companies will erode to some degree. So firms that need a lot of capital in order to be able to turn the corner and can’t revise their business models fast enough are going to fail.

ECT: What do you see as being the current state of the information technology and Internet sectors right now?

JS:

As it relates to the problems that the economy’s going through, the technology sector will clearly be impacted. Firms are going to cut back on investments everywhere, and they’re going to defer projects as long as they can in a lot of places, and they’re going to focus their investments on those areas of technology where there’s a proven and certain return on investment. They’re going to go through a very disciplined process, prioritizing the investments that they make. I think firms that provide technology that’s nice to have but not mission critical are going to struggle.

ECT: What are some of the technology areas that you think are going to continue to get some of the funding from the financial community?

JS:

I think technology that helps people drive increased sales or helps them reduce costs or helps them improve customer retention and generates higher revenues per customer are all things that will be really difficult to cut back on, and in fact, one could argue, may even increase in value. I think major systems changes that improve to some degree the quality of an administrative function are things that are likely to be deferred.

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Accent Altering Voice Tech Aims To Replace Frustration With Communication

frustrated customer calling customer service

Having trouble understanding that person at the end of the support line you’ve called to get some customer service? A Silicon Valley company wants to make those kinds of problems a thing of the past.

The company, Sanas, makes software that uses artificial intelligence to remove the accents in the speech of non-native, or even native, English speakers and output a more standard version of the language. “The program does phonetic-based speech synthesis in real-time,” one of the firm’s founders, Sharath Keshava Narayana, told TechNewsWorld.

In addition, the voice characteristics remain the same even after the accent is removed. The voice output by the software sounds the same as the voice input, only the accent has been removed so, for example, the sex of the speaker is preserved.

“What we’re doing is allowing agents to maintain their identity, maintain their accents, without the need to change it,” said Sanas CEO Maxim Serebryakov.

“The call center market is enormous. It’s 4% of India’s GDP, 14% of the Philippine’s GDP,” he told TechNewsWorld. “We’re not talking about a few thousand people getting discriminated against on a daily basis because of their cultural identity. We’re talking about millions and millions of people that get treated differently because of the way they sound.”

“The concept is sound. If they can make it work, it’s a big deal,” observed Jack E. Gold, founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, an IT advisory company in Northborough, Mass.

“It can make companies more efficient and more effective and more responsive to consumers,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Talking Local

Gold explained that locals tend to better understand local dialects and associate with them better. “Even talking to someone with a heavy Southern accent sometimes gives me pause,” said the Massachusetts resident. “It affects the effectiveness of the call center if you can be much more like me.”

“Many call center workers are based overseas and customers could easily have trouble understanding what they’re saying in the case of strong accents,” John Harmon, a senior analyst with Coresight Research, a global advisory and research firm specializing in retail and technology, told TechNewsWorld.

“But the same could be true even for regional U.S. accents,” he added.

However, Taylor Goucher, COO of Connext Global Solutions, an outsourcing company in Honolulu, discounted accents as a source of customer frustration.

“It is well known that companies outsource call center support to different countries and rural parts of the United States,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The larger issue is the right selection of employees for the position and the training and processes that are in place to make them successful.”

Customer Perceptions

Harmon noted that consumers can have a negative reaction when they encounter a support person with a foreign accent at the other end of a support line. “A caller could feel that a company is not taking customer support seriously because it’s finding a cheaper solution by outsourcing service to an overseas call center,” he said.

“Also,” he added, “some customers might feel that someone overseas might be less able to help them.”

Goucher cited a study taken by Zendesk in 2011 that showed customer satisfaction dropping from 79% to 58% when a call center was moved outside the United States. “Everyone that I know has likely had a poor customer experience at some point in their lives with an agent that they couldn’t understand,” he observed.

He noted that the biggest problem with bad customer experience is the lack of support systems, training, and management oversight in the call center.

“Frequently we see companies move call centers offshore just to have the phone answered.” he said. “In customer service, answering the phone isn’t the most important part, it’s what happens after.”

“Agents, accent or no accent, will be able to provide winning customer experiences if they are the right person for the role, have the right training, and have the right tools to solve customer problems,” he added. “Saying the accent is the problem is an easy out.”

Bias Against Accents

When a customer support person doesn’t have the tools to solve a problem, it can be a huge frustration to a customer, Gold observed. “If I call somebody, I want my problem solved, and I don’t want to go through 88 steps to get there,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me because I just spent a whole bunch of money with your company.”

“Anything that can be done to get over that hump faster has multiple benefits,” he continued. “From the consumer perspective, there’s the benefit of not pissing me off. In addition, if I can get through faster, it means the service person can spend less time with me and can handle more calls. And if I can hone in on the problem better, I won’t have to call again about it.”

Regardless of whether a customer support person has the tools they need to provide top-notch service, accents can influence a caller’s response to the person at the other end of a phone line.

“A customer could become upset at having to decode a foreign accent,” Harmon said. “There is also the stereotype that some U.S. accents sound uneducated, and a customer could feel like that the service provider is getting by with cheaper support.”

“In some cases, I think the biggest pre-existing bias is that if the agent has an accent, they aren’t going to be able to solve my problem,” Goucher added.

Choice for Voice

Serebryakov noted that one of the goals of Sanas is to provide people with choice when it comes to their voice. “When we post photos on Instagram, we can use filters to represent ourselves however we want to,” he explained. “But you don’t have a similar medium for voice. Our mission at Sanas is to provide that kind of choice.”

Although Sanas has initially targeted call centers for its technology, there are other areas that hold potential for it.

“One of the biggest uses we see for the technology is in enterprise communication,” Narayana said. “We got a call from Samsung saying they’ve got 70,000 engineers in Korea who interact with engineers in the U.S., and they don’t talk at team meetings because they’re scared how they’ll be interpreted. That’s the next use case we want to solve.”

The technology also has potential in gaming, health care, telemedicine, and education, he added.

Sanas on June 22 announced a $32 million Series A, boasting the largest Series A round in history for a speech technology company.

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.

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OSS NEWS

Coding Vulnerabilities, Linux Growth, FOSS Friction Cap Summer Highlights

As IT workers continue their daunting job of protecting network users from bad guys, a few new tools might help stem the tide of vulnerabilities that continue to link open source and proprietary software.

Canonical and Microsoft reached a new agreement to make their two cloud platforms play nicer together. Meanwhile, Microsoft apologized to open-source software devs. But no apology was rendered for BitLocker locking out Linux users.

Let’s get caught up on the latest open-source software industry news.

New Open-Source Tool Helps Devs Spot Exploits

Vulnerability software platform firm Rezilion on August 12 announced the availability of its new open-source tool MI-X from the GitHub repository. The CLI tool helps researchers and developers quickly know if their containers and hosts are impacted by a specific vulnerability to shorten the attack window and create an effective remediation plan.

“Cybersecurity vendors, software providers, and CISA are issuing daily vulnerability disclosures alerting the industry to the fact that all software is built with mistakes that must be addressed, often immediately,” said Yotam Perkal, director of vulnerability research at Rezilion.

“With this influx of information, the launch of MI-X offers users a repository of information to validate exploitability of specific vulnerabilities, creating more focus and efficiency around patching efforts,” he added.

“As an active participant in the vulnerability research community, this is an impactful milestone for developers and researchers to collaborate and build together,” Perkal noted.

Current tools fail to factor in exploitability as organizations grapple with a litany of critical and zero-day vulnerabilities, and scramble to understand if they are affected by that vulnerability. It is an ongoing race to figure out the answer before a threat actor does.

To make this determination, organizations need to identify the vulnerability in their environment and ascertain if that vulnerability is truly exploitable to have a mitigation and remediation plan in place.

Current vulnerability scanners take too long to scan, do not factor in exploitability, and often miss it altogether. That is what happened with the Log4j vulnerability. The lack of tools gives threat actors a lot of time to exploit a flaw and do major damage, according to Rezilion.

The introduction of MI-X is the first of a series of initiatives Rezilion plans to foster a community around detecting, prioritizing, and remediating software vulnerabilities.

Linux Thrives, Along With Growing Security Woes

Recent data monitoring of more than 63 million computing devices across 65,000 organizations shows the Linux OS is alive and well within businesses.

New research from IT asset management software firm Lansweeper shows that even though Linux lacks the more widespread popularity of Windows and macOS, plenty of corporate devices run Linux operating systems.

Scanning data from more than 300,000 Linux devices across some 26,000 organizations, Lansweeper also uncovered the popularity of each Linux operating system depending on the total amount of IT assets managed by each organization.

The company released its finding August 4, noting that around 32.8 million people use Linux globally, with about 90% of all cloud infrastructure and almost all the world’s supercomputers being dedicated users.

Lansweeper’s research revealed CentOS is the most widely used (25.6%) followed by Ubuntu (20.8%) and Red Hat (15%). The company did not break out the percentages for users of the numerous other Linux OS distributions in use today.

Chart shows Linux devices by company size


Lansweeper suggested that businesses demonstrate a disconnect between using Linux for its enhanced security and proactively putting security processes in place.

Two recent Linux vulnerabilities this year — Dirty Pipe in March and Nimbuspwn in April — plus Lansweeper’s new data, show that when it comes to protecting what is under their own roof, businesses are going in blind.

“It’s our belief that most of the devices running Linux are business-critical servers, which are the desired target for cybercriminals, and logic shows that the larger the company grows, the more Linux devices there are that must be protected,” said Roel Decneut, chief strategy officer at Lansweeper.

“With so many versions and ways to install Linux, IT teams are having to grapple with the complexity of tracking and managing the devices as well as trying to keep them protected from cyberattacks,” he explained.

Since its launch in 2004, Lansweeper has been developing a software platform that scans and inventories all types of IT devices, installed software, and active users on a network. This allows organizations to centrally manage their IT.

BitLocker, Linux Dual Booting Not Perfect Together

Microsoft Windows users who want to install a Linux distribution to dual boot on the same computer are now between a technological rock and a Microsoft hard place. They can thank an increased use of Windows BitLocker software for the worsening Linux dual-booting dilemma.

Developers of Linux distros are fighting more challenges in supporting Microsoft’s full-disk encryption on Windows 10 and Windows 11 installations. Fedora/Red Hat engineers noted that the problem is worsened by Microsoft sealing the full-disk encryption key is sealed using the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) hardware.

Fedora’s Anaconda installer along with other Linux distribution installers cannot resize BitLocker volumes. The workaround is first resizing BitLocker volumes within Windows to create enough free space for the Linux volume on the hard drive. That useful detail is not included in what are often flimsy installation instructions for dual-booting Linux.

A related problem complicates the process. The BitLocker encryption key imposes another fatal restriction.

In order to unseal, the key must match the boot chain measurement in the TPM’s Platform Configuration Register (PCR). Using the default settings for GRUB in the boot chain for dual boot setups produces the wrong measurement values.

Users trying to dual boot then get dropped to a BitLocker recovery screen when trying to boot Windows 10/11, according to discussions of the problem on the Fedora mailing list.

Microsoft, Canonical: A Case of Opposites Attract

Canonical and Microsoft have tightened the business knot connecting them with the common goal of better securing the software supply chain.

The two software companies on August 16 announced that native .NET is now available for Ubuntu 22.04 hosts and containers. This collaboration between .NET and Ubuntu provides enterprise-grade support.

The support lets .NET developers install the ASP.NET and .NET SDK runtimes from Ubuntu 22.04 LTS with a single “apt install” command.

See full details here and watch this brief video for the update:

Microsoft Reverses Open-Source App Sales Ban

In what might well be the latest case of Microsoft opening its marketing mouth to insert its stumbling foot, the company recently upset software developers by implementing a ban on the sale of open-source software in its app store. Microsoft has since reversed that decision.

Microsoft had announced new terms for its app store to take effect July 16. The new terms stated that all pricing cannot attempt to profit from open source or other software that is otherwise generally available at no cost. Many software developers and re-distributors of free- and open-source software (FOSS) sell installable versions of their products on the Microsoft Store.

Redmond maintained its new restrictions would solve the problem of “misleading listings.” Microsoft claimed FOSS licenses permit anyone to post a version of a FOSS program written by others.

However, developers pushed back noting the problem is easily solved the same way regular stores solve it — through trademark names. Consumers can tell genuine sources of software products from third-party re-packagers with trademark rules that already exist.

Microsoft has since acquiesced by removing references to open-source pricing restrictions in its store policies. The company clarified that the previous policy was intended to “help protect customers from misleading product listings.”

More information is available in the Microsoft Store Policies document.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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