Oto snags $5.3M seed to use AI to understand voice intonation

Oto, a startup spun off from research at SRI International to help customer service operations understand voice intonation, announced a $5.3 million seed round today.

Participants in the round included Firstminute Capital, Fusion Fund, Interlace Ventures, SAP.iO and SRI International. The total includes a previous $1 million seed round, according to the company.

Teo Borschberg, co-founder and CEO at Oto, says the company launched out of SRI International, the same company where Apple’s Siri technology was originally developed. It has been developing intonation data, based originally on SRI research, to help customer service operations respond better to caller’s emotions. The goal is to use this area of artificial intelligence to improve interactions between customer service reps (CSRs) and customers in real time.

As part of the research phase, the company compiled a database of 100,000 utterances from 3,000 speakers, culled from two million sales conversations. From this data, it has built a couple of tools to help customer service operations automate intonation understanding.

The first is a live coaching tool. It’s difficult to have management monitor every call, so only a small percentage gets monitored. With Oto, CSRs can get real-time coaching on every call to raise their energy or to calm a frustrated customer before a problem escalates. “In real time, we’re able to guide the agents on how they sound, how energetic they are, and we can nudge and push them to be more energetic,” Borschberg explained.

He says this has three main advantages: more engaged agents, higher sales conversion rates and better satisfaction scores and cost reduction.

The other product measures the quality of a customer experience and gives a score at the end of each call to help the CSR (and their managers) understand how well they did, simply based on intonation. It displays the score in a dashboard. “We’re building a universal understanding of satisfaction from intonation, where we can learn acoustic signatures that are positive, neutral, negative,” Borschberg said.

He sees a huge market opportunity here, pointing to Qualtrics, which sold to SAP last year for $8 billion. He believes that surveying people is just a part of the story. You can build a better customer experience when you understand intonation of just how well that experience is going, and you put it on a scale so that it makes it easy to understand just how well or how poorly you are doing.

The company has 20 employees today, with offices in New York, Zurich and Lisbon. It has seven customers working with the product so far, but it is still early days.