Kombea: Where Humans Meet Machines

Could we create a user experience that was driven by human intelligence, but restricted and controlled with technology to give us the accuracy we wanted?

Being a human being is pretty cool. It means I can do a lot of amazing things, like having the malleable intelligence to adjust to problems on the fly, or the wit and cunning to make fun of all those unfortunate souls who believe in juice cleanses. It also means I make a fair amount of mistakes on a day-to-day basis, including a wide variety of spelling and grammatical errors in everything I write (apologies in advance). That part isn’t as cool.

On the flip side, being a machine is also pretty cool (I imagine) because you don’t make mistakes unless somebody puts a magnet against your circuit board. This is sweet because your calculations are always correct and you don’t make embarassing spelling/grammatical errors that random strangers call you out on via email. The downside of being a machine, however, is obvious — you can never truly understand and appreciate the peak absurdity of people paying $500 to drink juice (and juice only) for a week-long stretch.

In a perfect world, a Terminator-like union could be formed, blending the real-world intelligence of a human with the rigid accuracy of a machine, minus Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “GET TO THE CHOPPA!” accent and adultery issues. This is the exact line of reasoning that led Art Coombs on a journey to create Kombea, incorporated in 2003 and currently transforming the way live agents interact with customers on phone calls.

“Could we create a user experience that was driven by human intelligence, but restricted and controlled with technology to give us the accuracy we wanted?” asked Coombs.

Quick note: when I said this was the exact line of reasoning that led Art Coombs to start Kombea, I didn’t mean the exact line of reasoning (remember, humans make errors). It had nothing to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it did center on the effective combination of human and machine.

Coombs, sporting an extensive background dealing with call centers, was meeting with a client who was unhappy with the amount of mistakes being made by live agents. This client, a travel agency, was stressing the importance of getting a customer’s name right — one misspelling means that person’s travel arrangements are now ruined. This general complaint was obvious and one that has consistently haunted the call center industry. If a call center can’t correctly obtain simple information, how can they be trusted to correctly implement regulatory, government-mandated procedures?

“I thought there has to be a better way,” said Coombs. “There’s got to be a way we can combine the pure intelligence of a human being with a computer. The holy grail in the call center industry is this one question: How do I get every agent to do what I want, how I want, when I want, consistently and accurately on every call? The challenge is, the very definition of being human is we make mistakes. We cannot be 99.99% accurate in everything we do.”

Through Kombea’s creation, this challenge has been emphatically embraced. Kombea’s platform is used by live agents to provide customers with the best of both worlds — an automated system (ensuring accuracy) run by a live agent (ensuring flexibility).

“We take pre-recorded audio files, we blend it with TTS (text-to-speech) and we build on-the-fly responses to customer inquiries,” said Coombs. “We create a scenario where the agent is pushing buttons and what the consumer is hearing is pre-recorded audio.”

Think of it as a new-age switchboard. A live agent monitors the call and responds to the caller through Kombea’s platform, using pre-recorded responses to interact with the caller and obtain information. This comes in very handy when dealing with government-mandated statements that must be read exactly as is, or in dealing with secure information (social security number or a credit card) being transmitted over a phone call.

SecureCall, one of Kombea’s products, deals with the sticky matter of securing information. Instead of interacting directly with a live agent and exposing them to your personal information, SecureCall allows the caller to submit information through the keypad, where it is encrypted far away from prying eyes.

“We have a tool that encrypts each individual digit to the highest levels of security and then passes it back to the server where it’s decrypted, not in front of the agent,” said Coombs. “So the agent still does their job, they’re still on the phone and haven’t transferred you to a computer, yet the agent never sees or hears the credit card number.”

Look, I wish I could give you amazing robotic arms that you control with your human brain to do incredible things, like crush all of your enemies to dust. Unfortunately, this option doesn’t exist (yet), so Kombea’s route of blending pure human intelligence with machine-like accuracy is the next best thing. Call center mistakes will never be completely eliminated, but Coombs is excited to be building a company that is helping reduce them to microscopic proportions. Let the human/machine takeover begin.

“I can honestly tell you that I love what I do and I love who I do it with,” said Coombs.

Published 4/7/2016

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