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Progressing from One-Way Notifications to Two-Way Conversations

June 3, 2019

According to Cisco’s report “Customer Experience in 2020,” the average person could have more conversations with bots than with people next year. This is just one of a growing number of studies suggesting that retailers are finally grasping the significance of automated customer-service platforms and are ready to unleash them on the world.

For years, the hype around chatbots as a potentially revolutionary means of customer engagement has largely outpaced technological advances. Until recently, consumer experiences with artificial intelligence–powered assistants have been frustrating, hilariously ineffective, or maybe somewhere in between. Almost everyone has experienced the sort of automated engagements that seem to end as soon as they begin: email messages from no-reply senders, text messages from numbers you can’t text back, or promising automated Web chats that quickly lead you to a generic FAQ page.

But chatbot technology is evolving rapidly, as I’ve observed while working with artificial-intelligence (AI) engineers and designers to develop and implement customer experiences across landing pages, email, Web chat, SMS text, social chat, and voice-assistance channels. As the founder of a company focusing on improving retail customer service through technology, I’ve also had the opportunity to attend and speak at conferences with some of the leading minds in this space. These experiences have shown me just how transformative automated platforms can be when they deliver seamless customer experiences.

The Race to AI Assistance

Companies in many industries—including healthcare, telecommunications, and ecommerce—are racing to deploy automated assistants to handle high-volume inquiry periods, offer 24/7 customer service, and simply meet consumer demand. A recent SurveyMonkey study found that 69 percent of people seeking quick communications with a brand actually prefer interacting with a chatbot.

Plus, modern chatbots are doing more than just providing customer support. Companies such as 1-800-Flowers are deploying AI-powered sales representatives to drive growth directly—and it’s working. This florist found that 70 percent of its revenue from Facebook Messenger came from new business. These bots can successfully walk brand-new customers through the purchasing process, including taking and submitting orders.

So what exactly makes AI so effective when it comes to providing an improved customer experience?

Making Service Personal

Chatbots and other automated assistants can get personal in ways that human workers often cannot.

Text messages, social chat, Web chat, and audio interactions are increasingly automated, and the chatbots doing the talking can quickly tap into a mind-boggling array of data to customize these interactions. Modern AI can deliver incredibly personalized chat capabilities. Chatbots’ conversations can take into account a customer’s purchasing history and other prior interactions with a brand over a variety of channels. This means chatbots can now offer nearly the same quality of two-way interactions that human assistants can, while being much better informed. Not surprisingly, this is the level of engagement that consumers crave.

Most retailers know this. For years, marketers have recognized the need to engage in two-way communications with customers on social media and other digital channels. Similarly, customer-service teams have long known that investing time in understanding a customer’s inquiry is more effective than merely directing her to a FAQ page or giving her a generic answer. To understand why, just try to think about your brand the way your customers think about it.

Relationships Are Everything

People, including your customers, generally expect and prefer two-way communications. That’s why organizations who have historically specialized in mass broadcasts are struggling to engage audiences as they used to. However, until recently, truly robust two-way digital engagement was not quite possible. But, thanks to advances in machine-learning technology, two-way communications are possible now, so brands have a decision to make.

Modern brands must decide whether they want to have relationships with customers on their own terms or on their customers’ terms. Do they want to play the role of a broadcaster or a friend? The broadcaster succeeds by creating a polished product catalog, delivering tight copywriting in email messages and social-media posts, and maintaining a strict focus on customer acquisition and conversion. The friend still needs all of that, but these companies must also work to develop a deeper understanding of their customers and be willing to invest time and money in serving them better. The payoff of the friend approach is loyalty—the kind you can’t manufacture through a rewards program.

Becoming a customer-centric company isn’t easy, but strong products and competitive pricing are no longer enough to keep customers coming back.

Creating More Opportunities for Actual Conversations

For brands that want to offer a better customer experience, everything starts online. The conversational experience takes digital commerce a step closer to the personal nature of in-store shopping, shining a spotlight on customer needs and adding greater convenience. Here’s how retail Web developers and UX teams can create more opportunities for two-way conversations:

1. Assess the current state of customer communications.

If you find that your brand relies heavily on one-way communications—for example, traditional advertising or lots of email campaigns—try to figure out why. It could simply be a result of internal inertia—doing something a certain way because that’s how it’s always been done. Perhaps your organizational structure is full of positions centering on one-way engagement—for example, email-campaign managers. Or maybe there are gaps in your technology or workflow.

Engagement is an ongoing process, so your first step is to find out where current customer engagements are ending. Examine the conversational experiences you already provide for your customers, then identify their friction points and work out a plan to remove them. To determine how to do that, ask members of customer focus groups what channels they prefer to use to provide feedback or ask questions. Pay close attention to what your customers are saying on social networks via comments or direct messages.

2. Identify your focus areas.

Your brand won’t become a customer-experience legend overnight. We all have to start small. Find two or three areas where one-way communications with customers could become conversations instead. Depending on how your organization splits responsibilities for engagement channels and customer lifecycles, this could be challenging.

Start by working on the channel that gets the least customer engagement and involves the fewest internal stakeholders. For example, you probably already have a Facebook page, and Facebook Messenger can be the perfect platform for conducting a controlled experiment and gauging changes in customer behavior. Chatbots that are optimized for marketing on the platform are relatively inexpensive. Plus, giving customers the ability to reach you on social media makes them 21 percent more likely to buy from you. That should be enough incentive to start experimenting.

3. Take inspiration from other brands.

You won’t have to look hard to find case studies and other examples of brands successfully implementing automated engagement tools. For instance, Levi’s leverages conversational interactions for both pre- and post-purchase assistance. This digital assistant becomes part of customers’ lives by being available 24/7 on desktop and mobile platforms to help customers find the perfect pair of jeans.

It’s okay if the companies you discover are in different industries or serve different types of customers. The reality is that most people are now showing a preference for AI-powered engagement, regardless of what they’re shopping for. As the companies they interact with frequently—think Amazon—continue to implement automated platforms, they’ll soon come to expect it.

4. Create a roadmap for crawling, walking, then running.

Fully automated two-way engagement means offering an integrated blend of services, purchasing opportunities, and support that customers can access via whatever channel they prefer to use at any given time. Of course, you won’t be able to build all of these capabilities overnight.

As you build out your roadmap, start by expanding on a couple of concrete use cases for which you’re already sending one-way notifications. For example, if you’re already sending package-delivery notifications to customers, think about how you could turn that encounter into a two-way interaction. Then, develop a customer-conversation opportunity map. Start by focusing on simple ways of creating small wins and gaining internal support. Then, build upon your initial positive results to gain buy-in throughout the organization. This can clear the way for larger initiatives such as automated Web chat.

The evolution of technology isn’t slowing down. In the next decade, AI can be either a barrier or a boon to your organization. Which it will be is your decision to make. 

CEO and Co-Founder of Linc Global

Sunnyvale, California, USA

Fang ChengAt Linc Global, Fang is delivering an automated customer-care platform to help brands differentiate themselves through automated services and experiences across the channels that shoppers prefer.  Read More

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