Sonny Patel: Delivering Cutting-Edge Conversational AI Solutions

Sonny Patel | SVP | Product & Engineering Conversational Intelligence LivePerson
Sonny Patel | SVP | Product & Engineering Conversational Intelligence LivePerson

We don’t ask for directions anymore or memorize the route to get anywhere. If stranded in an unknown place without access to the internet, we would inevitably get lost for hours – leading us to wonder – how did people do this before? The emergence of technologies like Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, and others have brought advancements that make life unfathomable without them. Such are the AI solutions that Sonny Patel, SVP of Product & Engineering, Conversational Intelligence at LivePerson wants to deliver to people.

Sonny is an established tech executive who believes in building products that have a far-reaching impact. She loves working with teams that consistently raise the bar with their results, and she leads a 200+ global, crossfunctional team consisting of developers, product managers, TPMs, QA & UI/UX professionals across ten different time zones who do just that. Currently, she is pushing the boundaries of human and digital conversations at LivePerson, with the aim of creating the world’s best AI-powered conversational platform that helps brands initiate and maintain warm, empathetic, and long-lasting relationships with their customers.

In an exclusive interview with CIOLook, Sonny Patel shared her STEM journey, her mission to create AI solutions that change the world, and what she wishes to change about the IT field.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

Brief our audience about your journey as a business leader up to your current position at LivePerson. What challenges have you had to overcome to reach where you are today?

I have been fascinated with computers ever since I got one as a present in the 90s, and this sparked the curiosity that led me to pursue both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in Computer Science and ultimately turn it into a lifelong career. Over the past two decades, I have had the opportunity to learn and grow at some of the world’s best technology companies: Dell, Microsoft, Amazon and now LivePerson. It has been an amazing privilege to be trained by the very best.

During the first few years of my career, I decided that I wanted more out of it. I wanted to learn more about building and leading world-class teams, which is the single most important skill to harness technology and build life-changing solutions. About a decade ago, I got a business degree from UC Berkeley. Since then, I’ve taken on increasing responsibilities and delivered consistently against my objectives. As a result, I got the opportunity to lead teams of increasing size even as I switched companies.

I started with leading a team of four about 12 years ago, and now I lead a global, cross-functional organization of over 200 engineers that helped build LivePerson’s core platform offering, called the Conversational Cloud. I have always liked challenging myself, and I feel that being strategic and resilient helps me deliver results regardless of the number of distractions that we all face on a daily basis.

I also thrive when I work with team members with extraordinary work ethic and high integrity because such people raise the bar for everyone around them. For that reason, I am particular about the talent that I surround myself with.

I’m proud of my career journey so far, and I want to acknowledge that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for mentors who were willing to take a bet on me when the opportunities arose.

Tell us more about your company and its mission and vision.

For more than 25+ years, LivePerson has been at the forefront of technology advancements that help humans and computers communicate with each other. Rooted in human emotion and powerful AI understanding, our sights are set on pushing the boundaries of digital conversations. This vision is built on a foundation of passionate, driven employees who embody our mission to create Curiously Human™ digital experiences.

We are honored to be recognized among our peers as an industry leader. Enterprise brands across the globe use LivePerson’s AI-powered customer engagement solutions to have conversations with millions of consumers as personally as they would with a single consumer. With our Conversational Cloud, brands can:

  • Engage with consumers across the communication channels they already enjoy
  • Gain real-time insight into 100% of conversations they have with consumers across digital channels
  • Automate conversations with Conversational AI, built on one of the most impressive data sets of consumer conversations
  • Empower agents with AI to drive cost savings and customer satisfaction
  • Connect our capabilities into their backend systems to bring their full power to their customers and agents

How are you leveraging technological advancements to make your solutions even more impactful?

We are a global leader in Conversational AI, the tech that lets AI communicate with humans through natural feeling conversations. Our AI is powered by over 20 years of conversation data we’ve accumulated, helping thousands of clients, including the world’s largest brands, a message with consumers at scale. We now power a billion conversational interactions a month, giving us a unique dataset for building AI.

Unlike more generalist AIs that aren’t specialized to handle any one thing, we are laser focused on AI for customer engagement. We work with the biggest brands in the world to build the AI and automations that let them talk to their millions of consumers at scale.

How have your company’s solutions impacted your customer brands?

Brands use our Conversational Cloud platform and Conversational AI to have two-way conversations with customers based on what they are doing or asking in real time. This reduces labor-intensive customer care and personalizes sales interactions. With LivePerson, brands have reduced customer care costs by up to 50% and increased annual sales by hundreds of millions of dollars. We unlock these benefits because our modern approach to customer engagement runs on AI but feels Curiously Human™.

When you get into the numbers, LivePerson’s customer brands have seen up to:

  • 2x increases in employee efficiency
  • 10x conversions vs. traditional digital experiences
  • 20% boosts in customer satisfaction
  • 90% automation containment rates
  • 50% decreases in agent attrition rates

I’m also proud to share that Fast Company recently named LivePerson the #1 Most Innovative AI Company in the World. And Aragon Research recently published a report ranking vendors in the Conversational AI space, naming LivePerson a Leader!

Describe in detail the values and the work culture that drives your organization.

At the heart of everything we do, from the way we connect brands to their customers to how we partner within our teams, four values guide our growth as individuals and as a global organization:

  1. Dream big: We are agents of change. We solve problems creatively, all while introducing, welcoming, and delivering new ideas. We start with intent, welcome diverse perspectives, and look to the data to improve outcomes.
  2. Help Others: We advocate for others and proactively engage to make a difference in the world. We are team players who approach every single task and conversation with a collaborative spirit.
  3. Pursue Expertise: We strive to improve—hone our expertise. We believe that there’s always room to grow and that the pathway to deeper understanding comes out of vulnerability.
  4. Own it: We are accountable. Period. We see our work through, prioritize appropriately, act resiliently, and even say “No” when we need to. As individuals, we’re empowered to take charge and become leaders at every stage.

I lean on these values on a daily basis to guide the decisions I make and to guide how I lead my teams to achieve our objectives. In particular, I’m a big believer of taking complete ownership when taking on a responsibility without worrying about which job duties fall within my direct responsibilities. This is where building strong partnerships and trust plays a big role in being successful.

What change would you like to bring to the IT industry if given a chance?

I truly wish we had more women leaders in the IT industry. I know I share the desire for more diversity in the tech sectors with many of my peers, and it is a difficult challenge to solve that needs to begin at a high school level and encourage more girls to take an interest in STEM.

The other aspect is retaining women in the workforce so that they don’t leave the industry after spending years being trained. At every single company I have worked at, it has been heartening to see that there are groups of individuals who are passionate about solving this problem. I have actively participated as much as I can in recruiting and mentoring more women.

I wish I could wave a magic wand to make the gender disparity disappear, but realistically it will likely take us years to ensure we have more women entering and staying in the workforce. That is why it’s important to keep shining a light on this problem and working on it continuously.

What, according to you, could be the next notable change in the AI sector? How is your company preparing to be a part of that change?

We have a real opportunity to utilize AI to overcome some of the limitations in human decision-making that have proven to be extremely difficult to eradicate – such as subconscious bias.

We know that subconscious bias impacts many decisions that we as humans make on a daily basis and this, in turn, has broad implications on our society. These could be decisions about school admissions, hiring for jobs or credit card applications. Imagine if AI could help us make all of these decisions – we’d then have the opportunity to build a truly bias-free world and give everyone an equal chance at achieving success.

This idea is extraordinarily enticing, and this is an excellent opportunity to showcase the potential AI can have on our lives. It does, however, require that the underlying data that we use to power the AI needs to be as free from bias as possible in order for us to build and use data models to power better decision-making.

For this reason, I’m very proud that LivePerson is a founding member of EqualAI, a nonprofit organization focused on reducing unconscious bias in the development and use of artificial intelligence. Together with leaders and experts across business, technology, and government, we are developing standards and tools, as well as identifying regulatory and legislative solutions, to increase awareness and reduce bias.

Where do you envision yourself to be eventually, and what are your future goals for LivePerson?

I believe we are still scratching the surface when it comes to how we utilize AI in our daily lives. The applications are really endless, and because of that, the competition in this space is intense. I envision myself delivering AI solutions that, first and foremost, everyone finds useful. I want to spend my time building solutions that make people say, “what did we do before we had this?” Because ultimately, I think the role of AI is to free up our time so that we can use it to do things we enjoy and are more meaningful, like spending time with friends and family.

At LivePerson, we are currently building solutions focused on customer engagement. However, in the future, the same technology that we are building could be expanded to solve problems in other sectors. That’s very exciting.

What would be your advice to budding entrepreneurs who aspire to venture into the IT sector?

My advice for entrepreneurs or anyone setting off on a new career journey is to find your personal sources of motivation. What is the thing that makes you so happy that it keeps you going when you inevitably have some hard days? This may take a few years and might involve experimenting with distinct roles, technology areas and companies. But the time spent learning about your own interests and motivations is well worth the investment.

First, what motivates each of us will be vastly different, so there isn’t a standard answer that fits us all. Second, if the motivation is purely extrinsic, it fades really fast, especially on days that are challenging. It took a good chunk of a decade for me to realize what I like the best about my job and what keeps me going. I make sure that no matter what new role I take, I spend more time doing things that fulfill me.