Artificial intelligence (AI) is starting to play a role in the customer brand experience. Many smartphone owners are making use of their virtual personal assistant; brands are making use of chatbots and voice-activated apps to help guide customers through the decision process. AI is also being used to represent the brand as customers connect with it – but it’s a leap of faith to entrust the customer experience to artificial intelligence.
Curiously, consumers seem more prepared to engage with AI in private than in public. Many customers feel more relaxed talking to their virtual home assistant such as Alexa but would feel reluctant to converse with a machine in public.
A study by Creative Strategies found that whilst 39% of voice assistant users were happy to use the technology in their homes, under 2% were prepared to do so at work and only 6% would use them in public.
One theory states that the way to get customers to accept AI is to make them more human. Purna Virji, a training manager at Bing ads, says that the key is to make customer forget they’re not dealing with a human being.
Amazon has made changes to Alexa’s speech synthesis markup language tags specifically to make the home AI hub speak in a less robotic manner. The aim is to allow AI to speak in a more nuanced manner, building more of a rapport with the user but also potentially reduce ambiguity by adding greater expressiveness to replies.
Perhaps the biggest decision that marketers need to make is at which point customers are given access to a human. Presently many inbound calls are handled by AI: a robotic call assistant takes a customer’s account details before they are passed to a human operator to get to the heart of their enquiry.
As AI becomes ever more sophisticated, that access to a human being may be further delayed. In some cases, the entirety of the call may be handled by a chatbot. But if consumers aren’t prepared to talk to a robot in public, how comfortable will they feel about dealing with a non-human agent for your brand? And more importantly, where does this leave your relationship with them?
AI and the customer experience
AI has the potential to significantly improve brand relationships with customers. Machine learning can offer better personalisation, improved targeting and a more thorough experience that can be managed economically through human interactions. Robotic interactions can be more, not less, personal than indifferent human-run customer service.
Using AI to manage the customer experience could free up human operators for the stages in the customer journey when customers really need them. Used wisely, AI could make the customer’s experience of your brand more human rather than less.
The major barrier that brands are likely to run into is the lack of skills to implement this vision. Like many other technologies, humankind is currently playing with, we simply haven’t got the workforce in place to implement it just yet.
If AI is to be applied sensitively to the customer journey, those skills need to be widespread across the entire organisation to really understand what’s going on at every stage in the customer experience.
It’s likely that customers will face some baffling AI-mitigated interactions as brands experiment with implementing the new technology. Crudely applied AI could be a disaster for the brand reputation, so it’s worth approaching with caution.
Human interaction is luxury
It’s possible to envisage a world where human interaction is an exclusive part of the brand offering. Luxury brands are probably going to excel at this, offering human service where other less exclusive brands let AI manage their customer interactions. Having a human server is going to create exclusive dining experiences; the best hotels will have human staff. Human interaction could ultimately become a mark of distinction and a key selling feature.
One consequence of this could be that there’s a greater incentive to try to fool customers that a robot operator is really a human one. We’re not yet at the stage where that’s possible, but developments in the area of robotics such as speech and language mean AI is becoming increasingly humanlike.
It’s worth considering how your brand will approach this issue – should robotic customer service agents be explicit about their non-human nature right from the start? Fundamentally, your brand needs to be open and honest with its audience, even if that means they are less accepting of your AI brand representatives.
In the far-off future, brands may be threatened by AI in a different way. Connecting emotions to products have always been a fundamental tenement of brand marketing. But in a world where IoT allows your printer to choose its own brand of ink and your fridge orders milk on your behalf, what happens to brands?
Household staples will be replenished on our behalf by our robotic housekeepers and human-orientated branding for staples such as toilet paper and washing up liquid will no longer affect buying decisions.
How will automated decision-makers make decisions on our behalf and will robots write their own reviews? Some brands are at serious risk from automated decision-making trends, as we’ll no longer need brand guidance to make decisions we don’t really understand.