Artificial Intelligence, Real Engagement

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Artificial intelligence is one of the most transformative types of technology that we have ever seen. This is a strong statement and one that I do not make lightly. While Forrester Research believes that over 25% of the job tasks in the world will be impacted by AI as soon as 2019, I believe that AI will transform nearly every business across the globe within the next decade. To paraphrase Mark Benioff (Salesforce CEO) at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, “As a society, we are entering uncharted territory.”

When we look back at this moment in time a decade from now, I believe that we will segment today’s companies into three categories:

  1. Those that did not use AI tools
  2. Those that used AI tools to reduce cost and increase efficiency
  3. Those that used AI tools to better engage with their customers

I believe that we will see a clear difference in the performance of those companies that embrace the third category versus those that fall into the first or second. We are going through a major business transformation cycle and companies need to recognize that AI will play an important role in their business success.

One of the earliest signs of AI’s potential impact comes in the form of virtual assistants, often called chatbots. Nearly every company is exploring whether a virtual assistant could help their business and many companies have already launched their first prototypes. Very few companies have done this well, however, as most haven’t adhered to two critical rules that are fundamental to designing a successful customer interface:

  1. Experience Matters: Virtual assistants are stand-ins for people – and, just as with sales and service people, if a customer doesn’t like talking to a virtual assistant, s/he is unlikely to do so again – at least not by choice. The companies that have deployed successful solutions – ones that are creating real business returns – consistently place maximum emphasis on experience design.
  2. Context Matters: When customers share information with virtual assistants, they do so in the same way they would with sales or service people – and with the same expectations.  Specifically, customers expect that the information they share will remain secure and that it will be used to better understand their needs – and that they will receive more relevant and personalized products and services as a result.  If companies aren’t prepared to use the information their customers provide to improve the customer experience, they shouldn’t ask for the information in the first place.

The impact of AI technologies will go far beyond virtual assistants. These technologies are enabling a fundamental shift in how businesses operate. Just as the internet and mobile connectivity have enabled the world to have access to information at any time and any place, AI technologies will raise the bar for engagement with customers. People will expect meaningful, two-way dialogues. They will expect companies to use what they know about them already, and what they have given those companies permission to discover, to refine and complete their imprecise instructions. They will expect that the information they share will be device independent and that the conversations they begin on one will carry forward seamlessly in their service to the next. They will expect their attention to be drawn respectfully, appropriately, and always to their advantage. They will expect companies to anticipate their requests thoughtfully and without pressure.

As with the introduction of many new technologies, companies will tend naturally to focus AI efforts first on cost reduction and automation. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should not be the only thing. As business models change and industry disruption continues, customer engagement will become progressively more important.  AI uniquely can provide the insights needed to strengthen such engagement and those brands embracing AI for that purpose will be the ones that form the most lasting customer relationships. It may be useful to remember that Amazon wasn’t necessarily the best online bookstore, but with its original mission to make buying books the “fastest, easiest, and most enjoyable shopping experience possible,” it gained people’s trust. Similarly, companies shouldn’t underestimate the importance of creating the dominant experience as it relates to artificial intelligence and customer engagement.

The companies that succeed in the future will use AI tools to engage their customers. They will take a customer-centric, “outside-in” perspective to enable the design of digital solutions that drive customer loyalty, engagement, consumption and satisfaction. They will use AI for more than just cost savings; they will use AI to build long-term customer loyalty and revenue growth.

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