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Why Conversational AI Is a Game Changer for Support at Scale

Enterprises may be able to use conversational AI to create deeper connections with more customers.

Conversational AI is an AI trained to interact with people. It’s becoming a powerful tool in sales, where tests have shown it significantly increases close rates in difficult areas such as insurance. It is also being explored for medicine, where it might allow for medical kiosks that could get a person to a needed remedy more rapidly when few medical professionals are available.

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However, it is in customer support where I think conversational AI could have the greatest impact. It could not only help customers at scale, but it could also create a far deeper connection between customers and the companies that serve them.

A Dell Example

Decades ago, I called in for support for a Dell laptop. I already knew what was wrong with it. The hard drive had failed. You could hear it inside the laptop trying but failing to read the platter. (I don’t miss hard drives.) I called Dell support. The call took an hour, but I left feeling far closer to Dell as a result.

This seems insane, right? Dell wasted an hour of my time, and yet I felt closer to the company at the end. Why? When I said I had a hard drive failure, the support person (according to Dell policy) had to take me through a script to determine what the problem was regardless of what I thought it was. Oh, and we did conclude it was the hard drive, which was replaced.

However, over that hour I got to know the support person, and she got to know me. In between questions, we had a dialog about our lives, news and events, and things that had nothing to do with the laptop while waiting for her screen to update with the next query. This dovetailed with a survey I conducted while I worked at Giga Information Group (a company later sold to Forrester) that indicated that even though, at the time, Dell PCs weren’t as well made as Sony PCs, nor were they as attractive, people were more loyal to Dell because of their support engagement. The conclusion wasn’t intuitive. It indicated that a company with lower reliability but a better service experience had more loyal customers.

What those long service calls did was create the impression that Dell really cared about its customers, while Sony, with better products but a horrid customer support experience, built no loyalty at all for its PC brand. (Sony is no longer in the PC business.) At the time we did this, Sony was a known, quality brand that had been around for decades in personal electronics, while Dell was far younger and didn’t have a similar reputation.

Today, with massive staffing shortages, companies don’t staff to the level that Dell once did, so how do you get to that same level of loyalty and engagement?

Conversational AI

Conversational AI is the potential answer, but only if it is trained to both address the questions the customer has and engage with the customer. I did a review of an IBM Watson sales trial for an insurance company a few years back and the jump in close rates was almost unbelievable. However, the thing that caught my eye was how many men tried to ask the AI out. (The system used a woman’s voice.)

That’s engagement, and it showcases that conversational AI can engage like a person but without the potential downsides of using people. One such downside is being unable to scale the solution based on short-term loading. A current cloud implementation of conversational AI can scale the service up and down based on load, while it is far harder to increase and decrease capacity quickly with people. Plus, given that AIs don’t have bad days, hangovers, illness, or anger issues, they don’t behave inappropriately (e.g., trying to hit on the customer), don’t tell off-color jokes, and are resistant to verbal abuse (imagine what airline support folks have to deal with this time of year), they potentially provide a far better customer experience.

For instance, when Windows 95 was launched, Microsoft support was understaffed for what was a massive initial wave of problems connected to a level of variety in both the PC hardware and peripherals (drivers were in really bad shape). To keep hold times down (hold times were an indicator of customer discontent), the head of Microsoft support caused all the support lines to appear busy so people with PCs couldn’t even get in line to talk to a person, and customers got very upset. Suddenly, one of the biggest tech launches in the history of tech tanked because Microsoft couldn’t scale support.

A Final Word

Conversational AI can create a far deeper relationship with customers at scale than people can, particularly now during times of endemic short staffing. To get the full benefit, the AI must be trained to engage with the customer, create a relationship with them, and truly become the friendly face of the company. As these AI applications advance, I can see firms allowing them to modify their interaction based on what they know, learn from the customer personally, and even, at some future point, possibly send out thank you or even holiday cards digitally to customers to retain engagement. It likely goes without saying that this same information could feed conversational AI implementations focused on selling, which, like the IBM example, would also increase close rates.

The point I want to make here is that the important part of a conversational AI isn’t being able to just answer a question, but also to engage with the customer, create a relationship, and showcase that the company using the technology cares about the customer while assuring a positive outcome. The true power of conversational AI is to create relationships at scale so that, regardless of staffing levels, no customer is ever left behind and, institutionally, the company can demonstrate it cares for every customer. As a reward, the customers will (as the Dell example illustrates) care for the company in return.

About the Author

Rob Enderle is the president and principal analyst at the Enderle Group, where he provides regional and global companies with guidance on how to create a credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero-dollar marketing. You can reach the author via email.

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