Artificial intelligence is on the lips of every influencer in Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg is building his own artificially intelligent butler, and Elon Musk recently launched an AI company. We’re still a long way from the superintelligence of the future. But AI is on the rise, and it’s already driving change in retail and consumer businesses.
The Evolution of Speech and Voice
Several aspects of AI have advanced significantly in recent years, particularly speech recognition and text understanding. Speech recognition, also known as voice understanding, interprets spoken words and matches them with concepts, tasks, and people. If you’ve ever whipped out your phone and said, “OK, Google, call [insert favorite pizza place here],” you’ve encountered speech recognition technology.
Engineers have been building voice understanding into dictation software and live television subtitling for years. But it’s become ubiquitous as millions of people use Siri, Cortana, and Echo (the voice-activated assistants developed by Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon) on a daily basis.
The latest updates in voice recognition will change the customer service game. Instead of forcing people to sit through tedious prompts when calling a company, interactive voice response systems will allow callers to ask questions the same way they’d talk to Siri or Cortana. The algorithms will intelligently decipher entire sentences, then direct callers to the appropriate responses or call queues based on their needs and language preferences. It’s a more efficient way of delivering customer service.
Text understanding drives autocomplete algorithms, allowing search engines to determine what users are searching for before they’ve finished typing their queries. The technology is also vital to companies that rely on digital marketing to generate online and in-store traffic.
Facebook recently launched DeepText, a “deep learning-based tool” designed to collate and make sense of all the data the social network has gathered. The company will use DeepText to improve its own products first, but advertisers will likely benefit from the tool as well. DeepText can help companies send targeted promotions by analyzing the content of users’ conversations. It will also provide invaluable insights to retailers about public opinion on their products.
Businesses rely on customer feedback to improve their products and services. But manually reading comments requires hundreds of hours of human capital. Platforms such as Microsoft’s Cognitive Services analyze positive and negative sentiment in customer reviews, highlighting key areas of customer dialogue. They alleviate the need for real people to do these tasks and allow customer service representatives to focus on more interpersonal strategies.
Embracing the Future
Given how quickly AI accuracy has developed in recent years, it’s difficult to predict what the next decade holds. As devices get smaller and faster, big data can feed machine-learning systems with even more information. Businesses will be able to quickly and accurately upgrade the customer experience, especially as more products incorporate technologies from the Internet of Things.
For instance, an IoT-enabled smartwatch might report to a service that analyzes performance and reports flaws to the manufacturer. This triggers a logistical workflow at a warehouse, which checks the device’s warranty and purchase date. The system sends an email to the customer with a list of options for replacing the watch — plus a discount code as consolation. There’s no human capital involved in the process, but the customer is still satisfied.
Although businesses can’t predict all upcoming AI advances, they can plan for how to incorporate them effectively. Here’s how:
Make use of preexisting data. Before purchasing new data sets, analyze the information that’s already available. Are there more efficient ways of using current insights? Which data have been underutilized? Maximize the systems that are already in place, and supplement with new platforms.
Implement change incrementally. There are many areas in which AI can theoretically improve businesses. But an improperly deployed tool can have undesirable effects, especially when it comes to customer service. Make small changes, and test them until they’re solid. Then extend the improvements to other areas.
Choose the right tools. AI is a rapidly moving field, making many new functionalities available to retail and consumer markets every day. Resist the impulse to adopt them all, and don’t accept perceived limitations. Choose platforms that align with your long-term goals — when it comes to AI, what’s impossible today could very well be possible tomorrow.
AI platforms are great at predicting outcomes, but they’re not a cure-all for customer service issues. Customer service representatives have human compassion and can bend the rules to ensure that people are satisfied in a way that AI can’t. You can program an AI to say “I’m sorry” and “Thank you,” but the emotion won’t be behind it — not yet, anyway.
Both AI and humans are essential to building better, faster customer service platforms. By combining these forces for the greater good, retail businesses will become pioneers in human-machine cooperation.
Michael Thorne is the chief technology officer at Bristlecone Holdings