Be careful what you wish for. For Tony Bates, that's been running a big tech company.
He rose to Cisco's top ranks but didn't get the No. 1 job. His big CEO break was at Skype when it was poised to go public — but months into that gig, Bates' venture backers sold it to Microsoft instead. After a stint at Microsoft, where some eyed Bates for the CEO job that went to Satya Nadella, he took over GoPro. There, he got cut in a round of layoffs as the camera company struggled. He joined Social Capital, which helped fund Slack and Box, for a gig that lasted a year before tech investor Chamath Palihapitiya blew up the venture capital firm he started.
Bates is now about two years into his run at Genesys, a company that, for the last 31 years, predominantly served as an on-premise provider of contact center software but is now fighting to move clients to the cloud and infuse AI across its product suite. And Bates is hoping the experience gained by hopscotching through the tech industry will help Genesys emerge victorious in one of the more ferocious IT battlegrounds in corporate America — one that could be worth $91 billion by 2028, per Grand View Research, if you generously wrap in all the ways businesses spend money to manage their dealings with customers.
"I sold to the largest telephone companies in the world. I built infrastructure products that have very long life cycles. That perspective grounds me," Bates told Protocol. "But if you don't have a sense of the level of disruption and the innovation that consumers are not just asking for, but frankly driving … they're fickle, they move very quickly."
The industry is littered with decades-old providers like Genesys that are all trying to move from on-premise to the cloud. But new entrants including Amazon and Microsoft are putting pressure on the incumbents. And fresh rivals are still likely: Zoom is reportedly considering the call center market. Bates is banking on clients seeing past the latest shiny object, instead relying on the company's legacy in voice services as a difference that matters.
"There are some players out there who say it is all about digital-only, but really the world isn't like that today," he said. "You lead with digital, but you are still going to need voice technology."
Bates has work to do. For one, many competitors are already out there touting new AI offerings, which promise to offload more work to bots. And Genesys is a bit tardy to that party. In December, Bates started an AI unit, Genesys Digital, led by industry veteran Barry O'Sullivan. It's a big step, but organizational alignment around digital is a pivot that some competitors, namely the non-legacy vendors, are already way ahead on — or were even built around.
Take ASAPP, the AI-based customer service software startup valued at $800 million, which has customers including JetBlue. Since inception, the New York company has operated its own research center to advance the underlying tech it offers to clients. It gives ASAPP a potential advantage over rivals like Genesys that are only now trying to rework their operations to make AI a core focus.
The call center market "is a mature space, but one that is ripe for change, with a lot of incumbents, but calcified incumbents," ASAPP CTO Will Robinson told Protocol.
Still, Genesys is working quickly to make up for lost ground; it currently offers products like predictive routing and chatbots, which are largely standard in the industry now, at least based on marketing materials. And Bates sees efforts by rivals to date as little more than hype and thinks Genesys is on track to meet customers where they are in their digital journey.
"It's still very early on for many businesses," he said. "They used to talk a lot about [AI], but I don't think they were really as committed in the way that they are now."
Industry analysts like Gartner's Drew Kraus agree. While he says Genesys has out-paced other long-standing rivals like Five9, Kraus believes the company may need to look outside its own business to stay competitive with AWS and other new entrants on digital offerings.
Vendors like Genesys "are watching this space, going to do some development on their own, but very well may make some acquisitions to help bridge the gap," he told Protocol. "There will be a combination of buy, build and partner. But there is a gap today."
Legacy as a selling point
While some may view Genesys' history as an on-premise software provider as a disadvantage in today's environment, Bates eagerly touts it.
And for good reason. When most people think of a call center, their last argument with an airline rep over change fees might come to mind. But the function serves as much more than that. It's the lifeblood for organizations like UnitedHealth Group that rely on human agents to field pressing questions about coverage from its 141 million members. So any IT mishap can be a huge headache and PR nightmare for an organization, which is why providers like Genesys that have a long history of reliable service can be an attractive choice.
At the same time, the call center has emerged as a hotspot for digitization, which in the context of contact centers means moving beyond just switching voice calls to an available representative to more sophisticated customer flows. Most corporations, for example, employ some sort of machine learning to automate customer inquiries. It extends far beyond robot operators, however. Genesys is part of a new push among businesses to turn their customers from a faceless army of consumers to millions of unique data points that can be analyzed, processed, moved around and dissected for monetary gain. The company is primed to ride that wave and it's banking on Bates to help.
"It isn't just about moving from on-premise to cloud," he told Protocol. It's also about "making use of all that data we're collecting to really give these empathetic experiences."
Genesys, which Alcatel acquired in late 1999 and sold to Permira and other investors in 2012, is a bit of a hidden gem. Some 11,000 companies, including the bulk of the Fortune 100, use its technology to handle roughly 70 billion customer interactions annually, per Bates. (Verizon just added Genesys tech to its call center.) Gartner lists it as a leader in the field and the company said it spends more than $250 million a year on R&D.
"Genesys has led many of the innovations that we now take for granted," said Bates. But even he admits that it's got a bit lost in the shuffle.
"The time has come, the technology is there [and] the consumer demand is there," he said. "You'll hear a lot more about us."
Bates may be right on that, at least, based on last year's results. Bookings for Genesys Cloud, for example, rose a record 130% in the last fiscal year. And cloud accounted for 75% of all new bookings, up from 53% in 2019.
The partnership conundrum
Those results reflect the shift away from on-premise. To help with that transition, Bates quickly formed partnerships with some key allies: namely, Adobe, Azure, Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services.
AWS and the other hyperscalers are serving a crucial function that, quite frankly, Genesys can't live without: allowing it to serve a wide spectrum of customers whose data storage strategies vary. The deals also give Genesys more visibility among potential clients, leading to an "immediate lift in the incremental pipeline in our business," per Bates.
But that comes with a risk of aligning with future competitors. AWS, for example, is charging into the contact center space, with sales of Amazon Connect reportedly growing 150% in 2020.
"There's so much opportunity all-around that it's less of an issue today," Bates said. "Ultimately, it probably comes down to alignment and making sure that we still feel there is enough there to drive" mutual benefit.
Genesys isn't alone in navigating what Bates called "a complex chess board." It's a conundrum that many executives face as cloud giants expand their reach into more industry segments. But one of Genesys' financial backers agrees with Bates that Amazon presents as much of an opportunity as it does a threat.
"The continued elevation of what type of competitors we get in this space in a way is some of the best validation of how big and exciting of a category it has gotten to be," said Permira partner Brian Ruder. "Most of those guys don't target small markets."
To help execute his strategy, Bates has made several key hires: CFO Brian Swartz, CMO Joyce Kim, HR head Eva Majercsik, head of multicloud solutions John Hernandez and executive vice president of sales Marylou Maco.
And while the pandemic, which forced traditional call centers to empty out their rows of tightly-packed cubicles and shift to the cloud, likely juiced Genesys' sales, Bates feels plenty of opportunity remains. Nearly every company of a certain size runs some version of a call center. That gets Bates excited. All those operations need digitizing.
"This is the new agenda" when he talks to top executives, Bates said. "We don't really see that momentum changing."