AI will be at its best when no one’s talking about it

Initially known as RFPIO, Responsive recently announced that it has enabled its customers to respond to more than $500 billion in opportunities via its Responsive Platform.

The company has been at the forefront of integrating AI into its services to streamline labor-intensive and error-prone tasks, catering to revenue-generating businesses of all sizes. 

In a conversation with CIO&Leader, AJ Sunder, CPO, CIO and Co-Founder of Responsive shed light on leveraging natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning, and the rapidly evolving customer expectations.

AJ Sunder, CPO & CIO, Responsive

CIO&Leader: Could you explain what RFP response software is and how Responsive has evolved in this space?

AJ Sunder: We started as an RFP response software. That’s why we were initially named RFPIO. When buyers want to procure services or software from vendors, typically they issue a request for information initially and then a request for a proposal where the vendors have to answer a series of questions, the information that the buyers want to know about the vendors. They have to make a decision on whether the vendor is the right fit for them before they commit to their services or software or whatever they’re selling. And our application is designed to help those vendors, the sellers, to put together the most compliant, consistent, reliable responses every time so they have the best chance of winning that opportunity. So that’s where we started, and that still is a big focus of us, RFPs. 

But we’re not just limited to RFPs. Businesses want to know about each other all the time. There’s a lot of questions we may have before we sign on with somebody. Those are not necessarily RFPs, but these are all still information one organization will need to know about another before they do business. And that’s where our application comes in, being able to provide those responses. And that’s why we have now created and moved to creating a new category called Strategic Response Management. Being able to provide that consistent response, compliant response, and reducing your business risks. If someone can speak for your business and give misinformation, that could put your business at risk in the future. So having that trust in the responses you provide is critical. And that’s a big role we play as a strategic response management.

CIO&Leader: How has AI integration and machine learning shaped the functionality and efficiency of Responsive’s platform? 

AJ Sunder: With any time you are responding, by nature, you are responding to a third party.  Someone outside your organization wants to know something about your organization. So when you’re responding to them, there’s an obligation that the answers we provide are accurate and consistent, repeatable. And naturally, there’s a lot of repetition. Using ourselves as an example, we sell certain solutions. Our customers or prospective customers, buyers, want to know certain things about what we do, what services we offer, what solutions we offer. So those questions tend to be somewhat repetitive. If you have answered previously, chances are somebody else that is looking to buy your solution is going to ask questions that are similar, may not be the same, but similar.

We can never achieve full automation because you still want to speak to each buyer’s needs. AI can help you a great deal to save time being able to retrieve the most relevant information so you’re able to provide those responses, help personalize so you’re not always saying the same thing. You understand what the buyer’s priorities are and speak their language. No one wants to see that you just copy-pasted a bunch of answers to answer their questions. They want to know, did the vendor understand our needs? And each buyer’s needs might be slightly different. And having personalization using AI. And as I mentioned earlier, accuracy and compliance matter. If someone who is answering accidentally makes a commitment to the buyer, and that becomes an obligation that particular business may or may not be able to meet in the future. So having that trust, those responses are always accurate, and that’s something the business can fulfill is important. These are all areas in which AI plays a role in our solution. 

We also use AI for making data-driven decisions. Often you have limited resources that are pursuing a lot of opportunities. So you have to be somewhat selective. You can’t go after every opportunity. Some opportunities you have a better chance of winning. Those are the ones you want to pursue. The ones that you know upfront you’re not a fit. Why do you want to waste your time and your team’s limited time in pursuing things that you don’t have a chance of winning? And AI can help make those decisions, and AI can help make your project planning better, because some of these projects can be very intensive, time-consuming, could pull a lot of people into. So you want to make sure before pursuing that you are spending your time and energy in the right opportunity, and AI can help make those decisions more informed decisions.

CIO&Leader: In what ways does AI contribute to the personalization and accuracy of responses generated by Responsive’s platform? 

AJ Sunder: A lot of the AI we do tend to revolve around natural language processing. You know, putting it simply, seemingly no two people ask the same question the same way. Everyone has a slightly different way of asking the same thing. And sometimes they may ask a question, and there may be a subtle nuance to that question. Understanding what the buyer, the customer wants to know, and matching your responses to those questions completely, accurately, tend to generally fall in the natural language processing domain. So that’s one of the reasons why NLP plays a major role in a lot of the AI we do. But it’s not the only tech that is needed. The other part is machine learning, broadly speaking, also plays a role. There are automations that we perform where machine learning plays a role. For example, I talked about predicting the success rate of an RFP. And we also use supervised learning for systems to recognize. 

Often RFPs are issued in Word or PDF or Excel type of documents. Understanding the different parts of a document, it’s unstructured data. It’s a document. Questions could be buried anywhere and it could be structured, a document could be structured in any format, Excel cells could be different. Understanding that requires non-natural language processing technology like machine learning and supervised learning. That’s another area in which our application utilizes AI. And third would be the data part of it, data mining, understanding data, drawing insights from that information. When we are looking at trends, like again going back to that example, when you’re making a decision on whether this is an opportunity that matches, suits you or doesn’t suit, requires being able to look at that incoming RFP and then compare that to in the past, requires a certain level of data processing and data mining to be able to help make the decision. These are all not completely disjointed tech. They all tend to overlap each other depending on the use cases.

CIO&Leader: Can you describe your approach to product development and how it facilitates rapid experimentation and adaptation? 

AJ Sunder: There is a lot of iterative approach to what we do. We tend to break things down very modulately. That makes things easier for us to deliver quickly, but also experiment quickly. Having a large monolithic application makes it hard for us to try different things at scale and at the speed we need to. For instance, AI moves pretty quickly. So we tend to keep things pretty modular, being able to experiment, implement, test, learn, and iterate. And we take a very integration-friendly approach. An application needs to be able to talk to a lot of different systems, an application like ours, for it to be truly successful. So we take APIs very seriously. That gives us the flexibility to be able to extend and integrate and talk to different systems, which is, again, really critical for our application to be effective. As a standalone application, its use will be pretty limited, but with integration and extension, it makes it very powerful. And from a user experience standpoint, again, it’s never done. 

UX is always evolving, is constantly changing, user expectations are constantly changing, and UX standards keep evolving, especially with mobile applications now. Every seemingly cycle at which the UX standards change has really shortened, and people get used to a certain way of interacting with applications, and that becomes an expectation even in enterprise applications. So we constantly are iterating our design and consistently learning what our users like and do not like, and it constantly changes. So there’s a lot of learning, a lot of learning, a lot of observation, what features are being used, what are not being used, where users are having struggle adopting, where the issues tend to arise. All of that informs us on where we need to focus. 

CIO&Leader: What are some of the challenges you face in keeping up with rapidly evolving customer expectations, and how do you address them? 

AJ Sunder: The customer expectation and tech don’t always evolve together in sync in terms of how fast they move. In most of the situations, especially in a space like ours, the tech generally, the product and the platform generally tend to stay ahead of the customer expectations. We have always been ahead. Now with AI in particular, our customer expectations are evolving very rapidly. The types of automation and the uses our customers would like to see out of AI in the application are changing pretty rapidly. And keeping up with those expectations, not just keeping up. We need to stay ahead of those expectations. And that’s our goal. And that’s how we have always operated. 

Staying ahead of that expectation is not impossible. It has become increasingly challenging over the last year and a half or so. The other aspect I mentioned is that evolving UX standard. When you’re building an application at this scale, it’s changing with the times. In the past, it might take almost 10 years before a UI starts to look old. Now, an interface will look old in two, three years because it looks different from everything else. Again, it’s a constantly moving target, the expectations, and we are not unique in that. I think this applies to a lot of applications, most of the applications, and it’s not an insurmountable problem, but it is a problem regardless that we constantly face.

CIO&Leader: Given the sensitivity of the information managed by your platform, what measures does Responsive take to ensure robust cybersecurity and data protection? 

AJ Sunder: The nature of the information our customers store is something they are sharing with external parties. So you could say, how sensitive can it be? But it is sensitive. It is highly confidential. Even if they are sharing with buyers and customers, they would not want that information to be made available to anyone other than who they intend to share it with. So it is very confidential information that we share. So we take it very seriously. Now, security has always been a problem. The moment a computer got connected to the Internet a long time ago, security became an issue 30 seconds later. And it has always been the case. And it has been this cat and mouse game between the bad actors and the people that are trying to protect their data, their systems, has always been the case. And a lot of my experience from the past is coming from the security space. 

When we launched RFPIO, I wouldn’t say this is the norm. Usually, your priority is building the application. That’s when you’re starting, when you’re launching a new company, a new product, your priority is getting a functional product in the hands of your customer. And then you build security as you start to get customers and sign up. But we kind of took this approach from very early on. In fact, before we even launched our product, we had implemented a lot of the security controls like to the ISO standards before our very first customer signed up with us. So it’s been a big focus for us. 

I wouldn’t say security is a bigger concern than it was 10 years or 20 years ago. It has always been a concern and will continue to be a concern. The tools that are available to us to protect the data, to monitor, to react and respond have all greatly improved. There are a lot more tools, sophisticated tools, intelligent tools that are available to us. And we use anything that makes sense to us, anything that will protect our customer. But the attack surfaces have also gotten more complex. Hackers have gotten far more sophisticated. They also have more sophisticated tools. So this is this constant evolving, one trying to keep up with the other. And that has always been the case, and we are well aware of it. And we use our own expertise, our internal experience, but we are also not hesitant to use the best in industry tools and expertise and services to protect our customer data. 

CIO&Leader: What are Responsive’s strategic priorities for AI advancements, product development, and market expansion in the coming years? 

AJ Sunder: The two aspects, actually a few of them. AI is front and center at the moment, not that it is new to us. AI has always been part of our journey, but the type of solutions, the technology that is available to us is evolving at a pace. The types of problems we can solve now have greatly expanded in the last few years, especially in the last two plus years. And these are solutions or use cases that would have taken a lot more effort and investment in the past. So, now there’s a great deal of opportunity for us to advance our product, advance the solution for our customers. truly make the best use of it is number one priority.

Second, as I mentioned, the cost and evolution of UX continue to improve that make the product so accessible. AI is at its best when it is transparent. When your end users don’t have to think that they are having to interact with an AI system. Like on our phone, when we start typing, the next suggested words appear. The three words, if you have an iPhone, I imagine Android has something similar. We don’t think much of it because we’re used to it. It’s just there. And that’s when AI becomes the most effective, where you don’t have to be tech savvy, and your average user can seamlessly work with the AI and get the most out of it without having to understand how to speak to AI, how to interact. These are things—that’s where we are headed. How do we make it seamless? You know, yes, there’s a lot of talk about AI and every company wants to talk about AI, but AI will be at its best when no one’s talking about it. And that’s where we are headed.

CIO&Leader: Are there specific industries or geographies that Responsive is targeting for future growth, and what motivates these choices? 

AJ Sunder: We as a company have barely scratched the surface in geo. We have organically grown across the globe. We have customers in every continent. I think the last 60-plus countries, maybe approaching 70 countries across the globe. But that said, most of that growth outside of the U.S., outside of North America has come organically. We haven’t made any major special investment or effort into it. But this problem that we are solving is universal. It is agnostic of any industry, any vertical, any geography.  And we will be expanding more deliberately across the globe in the coming years. So that will certainly be a part of our focus. While our product is industry agnostic, we have customers across every imaginable space, you know, healthcare, finance, banking, manufacturing, technology, in all the spaces. But it doesn’t hurt to focus on certain areas where you tend to have more of such interactions, information exchange.

So we will be selecting and focusing on areas like health care, finance, and technology. Those are areas that are our strengths. While it’s not exclusive, that having some industry focus will help us provide more better-suited solutions to our customers. And building community. We have a strong user base. It has been one of our cornerstones of our growth, the engagement from our customers. They’ve been very active, vocal in providing their feedback, and sharing the word, and helping each other. That’s been a gift to us, our customer base, and helping them build that community is going to not only help us, it’s going to help them. So that our users can learn from each other better than what we can say. So that’s another focus for us. And that’s the last couple of years we have invested quite heavily in building the community.

CIO&Leader: How does Responsive ensure that its team stays abreast of technological trends and continuously improves its skills and capabilities? 

AJ Sunder: I think maybe even three, four, five years ago, companies could afford to have a specialized R&D team where new ideas are explored in a lab by a small group and then propagated to the broader group and into the product. I don’t believe that’s practical anymore. Everyone has to be part of that journey. Everyone, as I tell my team, there’s no AI team. Everyone’s part of AI team. Everyone has to look at their product in light of the new technology, and not just AI. It’s not just AI, but I know that it is drawing a lot of energy and attention today.

People cannot look to other specialists and say, I have to wait in line for that specialist to help my product. Everyone has to figure out, understand, learn, and embrace the tech as it evolves. And that requires some rapid retooling and learning. And that is the challenge I think a lot of companies are trying to solve very quickly. And I wouldn’t say we have somehow figured out the magic formula to do it. There’s no substitute for experience. There is—you cannot compress time. Something we are deliberately putting effort into training and helping our teams learn. And the best way to learn is by doing. And so challenging our teams to do, to take on experimental projects and not be afraid to fail. Not, yeah, if it’s, there’s no such thing as wasted time when you’re learning. So having them try out new things, new ideas, if they are successful, great. If they fail, you’ve learned something to iterate through. And that’s how we are approaching it. I do think in a few years that gap will be bridged when there’s the universities, colleges across the globe are investing heavily also. A lot of people are learning on their own. A lot of resources are available. I think that talent gap will be bridged soon. At the moment, I think everyone’s facing that challenge at the moment, the gap, the skill gap.

CIO&Leader: What advice would you offer to startups regarding the implementation of baseline security measures and the gradual enhancement of security protocols? 

AJ Sunder: One of the evolutions over the, I would say in the last 10 years or so, there are some starting points. The baseline security has gotten pretty accessible. So a startup starting out today doesn’t have to invest a lot of their energy and time right away to think about security, meaning they can still rely on these best-in-class. It requires some investment, understanding what tools and technology they have to implement. But those baseline technologies are more readily available today than ever before. And knowing that upfront and putting some investment upfront is a lot more, and I would advise anyone to spend a little bit of time to start there. They don’t have to be SOC2 certified or ISO certified on day one. That’s not practical. 

But taking some of those principles up front, understanding those, and implementing some of those controls up front will save them a lot of time later down the road, especially when they are trying to scale. That’s not the time to slow down and then go invest in security. So do some homework up front, some groundwork initially. Make, establish that baseline security and then gradually build it, iterate it. It’s the best way to do it, not to ever get in a situation where you say you’re so focused, heads down and building the product and building the customer base. And then the first customer comes out and says, I’m not signing up until you have these controls and then you pretty much have to hit the pause button. That’s a situation you want to avoid.

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