It seems the Age of the Robots is closer than we think. Last month, PwC shared its prediction that 10 million UK workers are at risk of being replaced by robots within 15 years. According to the report, the wholesale and retail sectors are set to be most under threat, with a combined 2.25 million jobs in danger of being lost. The reality of businesses is finding new, innovative and – crucially, cost-saving ways – to run their operations efficiently means the human workforce will inevitably face some level of disruption.

And, a clear trend is that customer-facing industries are amongst those facing the most change. Take the telcos industry, for example, with O2 recently announcing the launch of Aura, its new voice recognition software, which will have the ability to solve basic customer issues; and therefore has the potential to reduce need for as many customer-facing employees.

It’s fair to say, to date, the most noise around chatbot technology has been the role it can play in customer service. But there is exciting potential in marketing, too – particularly when it comes to analysing customer data, and optimising sales and marketing strategies based on the data. And most marketers are feeling positive about AI; research by eMarketer found 75% of marketers felt confident about adding AI to their marketing and sales efforts. So what will the impact of chatbots be on the customer experience? Innovation is great – but is replacing humans with robots always the best solution?

Customers warming to the idea of robots

First, let’s look at the positive ways technology AI-related technologies such as chatbots and NLP (natural language technology) are transforming the way customers and businesses interact with each other. It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come in a matter of years; Siri and Alexa are now so ingrained in our everyday lexicon we can refer to them out of context to their technology parent companies.

For businesses, the beauty of chat bot technology is that it’s cheaper than training and hiring human customer-facing employees. In today’s digital world, customers want efficiency, ease, and authenticity when they communicate with a company. They don’t want to wait on hold for hours to a call centre employee; which is why technology that enables them to ask quick questions that don’t need human input is great (“how much data do I have left this month?”) And technology is becoming impressively accurate at understanding human language; IBM recently set a new industry record of 5.5% for conversational speech recognition.

Our research, conducted with Flamingo, found that customers are already engaging with AI as part of their experience interacting with businesses. Just over three quarters of people surveyed said they’re comfortable using chatbots and think they would improve the online experience. It follows on the business side, 73% said chatbots are relevant and almost 60% are seriously considering using chatbots within the next five years.

Next gen chatbots

But chatbot interaction has to be meaningful if it’s to bring real benefits to the customer experience. When you consider the customer experience is now the benchmark by which companies are judged – Gartner reveals that 89% of organisations now expect to compete solely on this – it’s crucial businesses deliver this in the best way possible.

This is what the next generation of chatbots will tackle. They won’t just spit out pre-determined answers to customer questions; they’ll also examine customer and employee interactions over time to offer increasingly meaningful guidance. There’s also going to be a practical approach where a human can be called in immediately if a consumer poses a difficult question – highlighting how important human-to-human interaction will continue to be.

The question of just how “human” chatbots should be is still on the table: male or female? Young or old? Friendly and polite or just knowledgeable? There are some hints at general preferences but perhaps each brand should decide for itself, based on what’s best for their audience.

Keeping the human touch in the customer experience

The Flamingo research also found one fifth of consumers are not happy or comfortable using chatbots because they can’t always answer everything. This is why I believe businesses and marketers need to avoid being too hasty in replacing humans with robots. The need for a personal service, with the compassion and emotional intelligence that makes us all human, cannot yet be created by software.

Yes, machines will help automate repetitive and easy tasks. But overall, they will increase human productivity and increase the value of personal interaction. Where technology should play a part is in empowering the employee with all the customer information they need (when did they last contact us? What other products do they hold with us?) – to enable a holistic, seamless experience which proves to the customer they are valued and understood.

The pace of technology shows no sign of waning, so it inevitable it’s is going to have an increasingly significant impact on a wide range of industries’ workforces over the coming years – but the ‘human touch’ and the role it plays in the overall customer experience will remain vital.


By Clint Oram, chief marketing officer at SugarCRM

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