By Anne de Kerckhove, CEO, Freespee
No matter which sector you are currently operating in, it’s more than likely that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will soon completely change the way you do business. Consumer-facing organisations in the retail, energy, finance, insurance and automotive sectors are embracing automation – not just to keep up with competitors, but also to keep pace with increasing expectations. However, with so much hype around AI in today’s media landscape, knowing the true value of what it can offer organisations – and how it can truly improve the customer experience – is increasingly difficult.
We have all been surprised at how quickly long-standing, established high-street retailers such as WHSmith, House of Fraser and M&S came under existential threat by the rise of more agile e-commerce players. At the heart of their woes lies a failure to provide customers with the experience they want – and need. And that is just as much a threat to online businesses as it is to their bricks-and-mortar counterparts.
E-commerce faces many of the same threats
The Internet is no longer young, and e-commerce has matured to a point where the market is not merely full but overcrowded. As these digital business models evolve, so do consumers’ expectations.
Thus, online operators who don’t keep pace with changing attitudes are beginning to stagnate – and feel the adverse effects of this upon their business. In this way, the digital marketplace shares the woes of bricks and mortar, at a different point in its lifecycle. Savvy businesses must therefore act now — traditional retail has shown us the likely results of any failure to adapt.
What do consumers want?
Where businesses are falling short is on customer experience. Consumers, in an increasingly digital and saturated marketplace, have an increasing expectation for their transactions to be instantaneous, immersive and entirely seamless.
As this becomes the norm, consumers’ needs will continue to evolve – the next holy grail is great customer service that not only meets, but also predicts, their needs and responds accordingly. Only data-driven insights will be able to facilitate this process, with AI and machine-learning moving in tandem with purchasing habits, and instantly identifying – better yet, anticipating – and meeting consumers’ needs.
Who wants to talk to robots?
According to PwC’s Global Insights Survey 2018, which surveyed more than 22,000 consumers worldwide, customers are happy to talk to robots. Brands must convince customers that they are authentic and caring in order to thrive – and though it may seem counterintuitive, AI could lie at the heart of this. AI can increase the human element to customer service – allowing businesses to offer the very best of human one-to-one service, in an online space. In fact, 60% of respondents in the survey agreed that AI can reduce the time it takes to get answers while being highly tailored to their preferences. 
In many cases, AI provides a great solution, and there is clear evidence in the PwC survey that not only are customers perfectly happy ‘talking to robots’ – hence the rise of apps like Siri and Cortana, and devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home – but they actually plan to do so more often. PwC found that while just 10% of respondents owned an AI device at the time of response, nearly one in three had plans to purchase one, and 18% of AI device owners associated ownership of that device with shopping behaviours.
However, despite consumers’ likelihood of adopting AI in the near future, some businesses seem less keen on the technology. Of course, the fundamental problem here is that if organisations cannot meet their customers’ needs – in the way they prefer – those potential buyers will go elsewhere — as we have seen with high street brands. Here, the benefits of AI are clear; it offers far more than just customer service and client retention.
AI does human things, super-humanly
Interaction and conversations between humans and brands become more productive for both parties with AI-enabled technologies. This is because they combine artificial intelligence and data to provide analytics – learning from and responding to a slew of data points in a way that no human ever could. With this analytical insight available, a call centre agent can provide the empathetic, responsive service that customers appreciate – and, increasingly, require.
For example, it is relatively straightforward for a good AI application to analyse the past and recent purchasing behaviours of individual clients, combine this understanding with wider machine learning in various data sets, and come up with rational predictions of future behaviours. This lets businesses plan, make investment decisions, build marketing plans and generally arrange their business in response to these insights.
It’s a win-win: consumers get a customised service, and the business gets a healthy bottom line. The business can quickly and easily customise special offers and promotions to the individual, and clients will be happy and ready to spread the good news on social media and elsewhere — at which point AI can analyse that, too!
Another strength is the power of AI to analyse, more or less instantly, processes and behaviour paths and identify areas of weakness or failure, so that vendors can eliminate these and refine processes to better suit the customer.
Currently, AI offers so many forms and applications, it is difficult to imagine a sector that can’t benefit from it. However, if we take a slightly more prosaic definition of AI as ‘technology doing things that humans do, in apparently human ways’, then any business that conducts substantial sales or marketing online has much to gain from the more widespread applications of AI. That’s because it effectively makes (super)human customer service available 24/7.
As technology develops, it seems inevitable that AI will become part of everyday business in much the same way as the telephone or the desktop computer. Now that we have seen the evidence of what happens to businesses that fail to meet evolving customer expectations, the pressure is on for organisations to embrace the power of AI. That’s why savvy companies are already deploying new technologies that incorporate AI — and are likely to see an expanding customer base as a result.