The past, present and future of AI in customer experience

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You can credit IBM’s Watson for creating a platform for artificial intelligence integration into a multitude of business and customer-facing applications. You can thank Facebook for all the buzz about chatbots and the gold rush of developers and venture capital creating an onslaught of bot companies. You can laud Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo for implementing intelligence into everyday devices and bringing to life voice as the new user interface.

However, the truth is we are only just starting to realise the potential of artificial intelligence and one of the most promising applications for AI to make a more than welcome impact is in customer experience.

It can be debated that for all of the good technology has offered businesses over the last several decades, it has also comprised key elements of the customer experience. Call centres, websites, email, apps, et al, have allowed companies to scale and automate customer engagement while also introducing process efficiencies and cost management systems. But that also comes at a cost. Over the years, many customers have complained that these very processes and systems are the very things that hinder or undermine satisfaction.

Think about it. When’s the last time you enjoyed contacting customer service? Or when’s the last time you were transferred between departments where the next representative was already plugged into your account with full knowledge of exactly why you were calling?

It’s unfortunate that many aspects of the customer journey are disconnected. Of course this is just a symptom of dated business models. After all, important touchpoints are independently run across the enterprise. Many of these touch points do not connect with or talk to one another as well as customers expect. And in some cases, they actually conflict or compete with other parts of the customer journey.

Unfortunately, things historically have been slow to evolve or improve because they’re often viewed as cost centers rather than investments. However, AI represents an opportunity to introduce intelligent, scalable engagement and more personalised experiences to help customers accomplish tasks or solve problems while also improving overall satisfaction.

But for AI to introduce new value and break new ground, strategists must take an innovative approach to CX and consider its impact beyond its novelty. Furthermore, AI cannot be hampered by legacy perspectives and processes around today’s customer experiences.

AI applications in CX

Whether you’re a CIO, CCO (chief customer officer), CEO (chief experience officer), or CMO, in IT, marketing or service, AI represents a blank slate for improving and innovating customer experiences. And with the right vision and intent, intelligent CX can thrust businesses on an accelerated maturity path to that helps digitally transform the organisation with purpose and customer centricity.

So, what are some of the ways in which AI is being applied to CX?

Chatbots

Chatbots are virtual, intelligent conversation agents applied to a variety of customer engagement scenarios. Under the hood, chatbots are sophisticated computer programs designed to simulate conversation with humans online. And, they’re a long time in the making.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated a chatbot application at the F8 developer conference in partnership with 1800FLOWERS. Using Facebook Messenger, a consumer could talk to a virtual agent to order flowers without leaving the window. What’s unique here is that the bot will pick up on conversational cues to suggest arrangements that meet personal needs and goals.

At the same time, other applications to hit the market have demonstrated some of the challenges facing bots, namely poor design, execution and a universal emphasis on transactions over experiences.

I once told the LA Times that “Chatbots are to you and me in today's culture, what call centres are to our parents' culture.” But bots can be so much more if we allow our imagination to unlock new possibilities.

Virtual concierge

Whether they’re based in messaging platforms or hardware devices, virtual concierges are bots designed to provide personalised services.  In some cases, these bots are partnered with human counterparts to act as “digital butlers” to help people book travel, find/buy unique gifts, coordinate specific experiences, et al.

For example, Uber co-founder Garrett Camp developed Operator, which aims build a new front door to e-commerce through messaging apps. In another AI case, Kayak founder Paul English introduced Lola, a new travel app that personalises engagement and booking with human engagement and artificial intelligence.

Virtual assistants/attendants

Whereas virtual concierges aim to help users accomplish simple-to-complex tasks, virtual assistants/attendants utilise AI to help users with questions or commands. Platforms include Amazon Echo, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, Google Now, among others.

Each in its own way is vying to become a platform for implementation in common devices and appliances. Additionally, each platform is partnering with developer communities to help extend functionality across horizontal and vertical applications.

Cognitive computing

Cognitive computing, in this context, is the simulation of human thought process to augment human engagement. It involves self-learning systems to mine data, recognise patterns, process natural language and interact with people in ways that are complementary, intelligent and value-added.

One of the most popular platforms in this space is IBM’s Watson, the intelligent system that famously beat top human contestants on the popular American TV game show Jeopardy.

In one such instance, Softbank partnered with IBM to add cognitive and emotional intelligence to its line of robots named “Pepper.” These adorable, and smart, robots are being deployed in retail, finance and hospitality settings to provide a more personal form of engagement to visiting customers. Today's self-service options in are limited to tablets, kiosks, ATMs and the like. Not only is the experience limited but so are transactional capabilities and the ability to nurture customer relationships beyond the transaction. With cognitive assistance, people can have a natural conversation where their words, as well as gestures and expressions are understood.

AI and CX

AI

So what are some of the initial applications where AI can help improve CX? The answer is everywhere. If you undergo a customer journey mapping exercise, you’ll identify any number of areas were AI pilots can help you test and learn. We’re already seeing the following list of AI applications implemented today:

  • Customer self-service.
  • Personalisation.
  • Pre-emptive routing.
  • Task performance/management.
  • Questions/answers.
  • Augmented engagement.
  • Product/service innovation.
  • Predictive service/sales.
  • Digital concierge/assistant collaboration.

Conversational commerce gives way to true omnichannel experiences

Today’s customers live in a multi-screen, omnichannel world. Customer experience forces these evolved customers onto engagement paths that are steeped in legacy and instantly feel outdated and unproductive. AI provides a means to facilitate intelligent, informed and accurate responses across all platforms aimed at any point in the customer journey.

This represents a new foundation for what’s referred to as conversational commerce. Instead of solving for individual touchpoints and instances, AI will help companies stitch together more natural and complete journeys to improve, integrate and even re-imaging customer experiences.

It’s hard not to geek out. It’s exciting. But AI is not a bolt-on solution or cure-all. AI and the future of customer experience takes vision and architecture to push lagging philosophies and processes forward. Whether it’s integrating back-end CRM, enhancing commerce, personalising experiences, introducing new touch points, predicting behaviors, trends and expectations, successful AI implementations require a new blueprint. Otherwise, we implement new technologies to do the same old things. …put transactions ahead of experiences without considering customer intent, preferences, and behaviors to improve or re-invent engagement.

Customer engagement is not a cost centre. It’s an investment in customer relationships. And, with imagination and ingenuity, AI will not only enhance customer experiences, it can improve every aspect of business.

About Brian Solis

Brian Solis

Brian Solis is a principal analyst at Altimeter Group, a Prophet company. He is also an award-winning author, prominent blogger/writer, and keynote speaker. His new book X: The Experience When Business Meets Design helps companies build a new generation of experiential brands.

A digital analyst, anthropologist, and futurist, Solis has studied and influenced the effects of emerging technology on business, marketing, and culture. His research and his books help executives, and also everyday people, better understand the relationship between the evolution of technology and its impact on business and society and also the role we each play in it. As a result of his work, Solis also helps leading brands, celebrities, and startups develop new digital transformation, culture 2.0, and innovation strategies and that enable businesses to adapt to new connected markets from the inside out.

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