By 2020, the average person will have more daily conversations with bots than they do with their partner (Gartner research).
Artificial intelligence or AI is fast becoming a mainstream concept. The ‘singularity’ – the moment when man and machine intelligence merge to irreversibly transform our civilisation – may still be some way off (renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil recently said it will happen by 2045), but AI is already making its presence felt throughout the business world.
Customer service in the b2b space is being rapidly reshaped by the technology, typically in the form of chatbots or virtual agents. Last month, a report by MIT Technology Review and Genesys revealed that 90% of the best performing companies with high levels of customer satisfaction are now using AI solutions to improve the customer experience.
However, this doesn’t mean big employers are replacing customer service staff with machines as quickly as possible. Although it seems inevitable that innovations in AI will change the global workforce and eventually render some jobs redundant (this report forecast a net loss of nearly ten million positions by 2027), in the current climate AI is most effective as a supplementary tool that can complement the work of human customer service teams.
According to the MIT report, 60% of top companies feel they already have the right mix of human and automated customer communication channels. MIT Technology Review’s Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau said that while big brands are keen to lead the way with customer service technology, they also understand how “over-reliance on technology in search for efficiency gains can reduce, rather than increase, the levels of customer intimacy required for success”.
AI and chatbots: What are they?
Chatbots are an increasingly common example of AI in b2b customer service. When used successfully, they show how carefully striking the balance between human and machine interactions can deliver major benefits for businesses.
There are, broadly speaking, two types of bot. The more basic type interacts with customer queries on a website by selecting answers from a set of pre-programmed responses. The more sophisticated bots use the latest innovations in machine learning to provide customers with a responsive, personalised experience based on collated intelligence and online behaviours.
A growing number of companies now use bots to answer basic customer queries. Let the bot handle the easy stuff and keep the humans on hand for more complex issues – this is the model a lot of b2b companies already use, and it seems to be working. Advocates say it provides quicker resolution and removes the burden of monotonous work for human customer service professionals, who can make a greater impact by focusing on less common problems.
Best practice for bots
So where should your business start if you’re interested in how AI could play a role in customer experience delivery?
First of all, don’t be tempted to dupe customers into thinking your bot is a human agent. Even though it’s there to perform a function previously handled by a person, almost every customer experience (CX) expert agrees that you should be completely transparent about the bot – let customers know they’re chatting with an artificial creation, not a fellow member of the species.
“If organisations are not transparent about how and where chatbots are being used with customers, and that the chatbots are offering responses only as programmed, trust could be very seriously impaired, even destroyed,” Michael Lowenstein of CX consultancy Beyond Philosophy has commented.
As well as maintaining trust, being open with customers about your bot will help to manage their expectations. Think about how people interact with voice-driven assistants like Siri and Alexa. Although this experience is designed to mimic a human conversation, we know we’re talking to a computer and adjust our approach accordingly, resulting in a better experience.
The second rule of bots, then, is to make it easy for customers to switch to a human agent if they want or need to. A 2016 survey by Aspect found that 86% of consumers expect chatbots to feature an option to transfer to a live person, but many companies still make it difficult for people to leave the tool once they’ve engaged with it.
As pointed out by Help Scout, we can infer from these recommendations that a chat-based interface is not always the right option for a bot. Although the format has its advantages, it can lead customers to mistakenly believe they’re talking to a real person and create unrealistic expectations, increasing the likelihood of a frustrating experience.
AI and b2b marketing
Beyond the realm of customer service, it’s clear that AI will continue to shake things up for b2b companies and their marketing departments over the next few years.
At the most basic level, AI is simply a great time-saver. Martech Today’s Daniel Faggella has explained how it can make the manual data-sorting tasks associated with things like lead generation and sales call analysis much quicker. Ultimately, it should free marketers from the humdrum tasks and leave more time for creativity and original thinking, just like in the customer service arena.
AI is already a big part of our lives, at home and at work. It seems b2b firms have plenty of time to benefit before we transcend our biology, usher in the era of true human-machine synthesis and transform our world in ways we can’t yet imagine. What are you waiting for?