A Social network for local businesses in rural France
Starting something new that is not directly inline with common business of a large company is like pushing a large rock up a hill. In some companies the hill is not that steep, in others it is a cliff. I always appreciate people who manage to do it, be the internal innovators, take the risk and make their dream come true.
I met Philippe Vayssac at the Paris WebRTC conference in December 2015. He was so excited about the service he launched that I believe that even if the insurance company he works for, Groupama, would put a cliff in front of him he would manage to push that rock to the top.
Internal innovation is not easy. The availability of technologies, open source and cloud platforms allow internal innovators and startups to launch and try new services. WebRTC is a great addition to this toolbox making adding real-time communication to these services easier than ever.
How WebRTC comes to the rescue of internal innovators is the theme of this interview with Philippe Vayssac, Chief Innovation Officer for Groupama.
In a few words, what is the business and size of Groupama
Groupama is a mutual insurance company, bank and financial services provider with “multi-channel” distribution to serve 13 million members and customers in 11 countries. Other figures: 35,000 employees and €14.2 billion in revenues.
The first step we took to improve customer service was an iPhone & Android app launched in October 2010. The purpose of this app was to avoid IVR and waiting queues and allow our customer to directly reach the agent responsible for the service they are looking for. See this video to understand how we made this happen.
What is granvillage, what was the main driver to building it and where did the idea come from?
granvillage is a social network for local businesses in the Rhône-Alpes-Auvergne region (Southeast France: 50,000 farmers, 50,000 companies and 500,000 personal insurances) created by Groupama. The target of this social network is to offer a development and commercial platform to producers of goods and services and business clients (mostly farmers, farmers are the DNA of our company created 100 years ago). Now this platform is spreading in France beyond the Rhône-Alpes Auvergne region.
“As an insurance company, we “mutualize” the risks to ensure the financial soundness of our companies and farmers. The idea is to strengthen their financial soundness by offering them a platform that bolsters their sales and their revenues. The goal of granvillage is to improve the loyalty of our customers’ customers and at the same time reinforce the Groupama brand in terms of innovation and “social and solidarity economy”.
In November 2015 granvillage received the FINTECH (FINANCE INNOVATION) innovation award and in December 2015 granvillage won the Best of show Award at the WebRTC Paris Conference.
How is the social network operated by the local small businesses?
One of the main goals we had for the project was to keep things SIMPLE.
Since many of our customers are at remote areas with no 3G/4G networks and many don’t have Smartphones we wanted to build the system in a way that will be very simple to operate with minimal device and network requirements.
To post an offer, the producer (mostly farmers) calls a telephone number and leaves a voice message. An open source IP-PBX in the cloud uses Speech2Text and Text2Speech features to provide this feature. It is also possible to send a text message to the same number. This video shows how it works.
On the granvillage native mobile app (iOS and Android) for tablets (mostly used by the end customers), a new feature was added in April 2015 to improve contacts between consumers and producers. A Click2Call button that uses WebRTC was added. Clicking this button connected a call from the device to the IP-PBX in the cloud then a SIP trunk displays the granvillage number and call the producer. This video shows how it works.
The new service we’ve built turned to be very successful as can be seen in these testimonials of producers.
We were fortunate to get a lot of feedback and ideas from our users (both our customers and the end users). This helped us improve the service and build the right roadmap.
Internal innovation. How did you manage to convince your company’s executive to go for this idea and allocate resources for it?
The vision and encouragement making us believe we can make this happen through internal innovation came mainly from Philippe Silberzhan (twitter @phsilberzahn). His article about “effectuation” summarizes what is the right way and the structure, that companies have to create to assess potential opportunities for growth:
It is important to stay focused on the goals and be convinced this idea is right for the company and it’s customers. At the end of the day, companies need to innovate in order to maintain growth and not to stay behind their competitors. The Three Horizons of Growth model described by Steve Coley from McKinsey is a good reference for how to make this happen.
On the WebRTC technical side, what technologies were used on the server and client side? How did you address mobile with WebRTC?
With two partners: NewQuest (Sorry for the French) and Avencall we created the WebRTC communication capabilities of granvillage. NewQuest developed the tablet application for iOS and Android and Avencall provided the WebRTC-SIP gateway. We’ve built our solution on an Asterisk based IP-PBX called Xivo acting as a webRTC-SIP gateway. We use sip.js library in the mobile application.
We faced two main challenges.
The first was the data connection quality in the mobile network and the second was the protection against abuse of calls, which are proposed for free. To ensure a good user experience, the tablet application performs network conditions qualification and the WebRTC call is proposed only if the network parameters including connection type and available bandwidth fulfill defined quality requirements.
We also enforced the security on the server side by restricting the possible destinations to granvillage producers.
granvillage WebRTC and SIP trunk architecture
What were the challenges working with WebRTC? Anything you think is missing in it?
The main challenge was the constant evolution of the WebRTC implementations in web browsers, we had a couple of regressions due to software bugs. We have also spent some time searching for the right configuration of network components such as Websocket proxy. I would not say that something is missing nowadays, but the differences in browser support of different features is quite annoying. Better adherence with the standards by WebRTC implementers would help.
What were the technical challenges working with WebRTC, learning how to use it and implementing it in your service?
The basic WebRTC audio and video call is quite easy to set up. The tricky task was to end a call quickly and properly when something went wrong, for example because of some client-side network filtering. We are using different verifications and keep-alive messages helping us to detect these problems; either in the control plane or the user plane.
Are there features, capabilities or components you would like to see in WebRTC or the WebRTC ecosystem (for example some server components)?
It would be great to include some methods providing a couple of high level quality indicators like MOS score for voice quality. A web developer should concentrate on the application logic and user experience, but the quality estimation based on the proposed statistics is quite a complex task.
What is your message to other internal innovators who are thinking of trying to launch new services within their large companies?
“Look at what you have, and see what you can do with this”. WebRTC technology is one of the great tools of “what we have”. In the Effectual Reasoning, they are “given means”.
Focus on User/Customer Experience; make it SIMPLE … this is the way to succeed.