Consumers kill for digital convenience: Can AI help your business?

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The new battleground for CX in business is digital convenience, and those that use AI and automation technologies judiciously to provide seamless, one-to-one omni-channel experiences will prevail.
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We’ve all seen countless images of the proverbial empowered consumer. That mythical creature seeking convenience and instant gratification. It’s a conjured-up image of a time-strapped digital native that juggles five devices and 15 tasks, interacting simultaneously on a host of channels, using their super-human consumerism to wield terrifying powers capable of paralyzing unworthy brands.

Hyped-up as they are, these visuals still serve a healthy purpose. They remind us just how far digital bars have been raised, and that should cause pause and beg the question, “as businesses, are we measuring up?”

Collectively, the answer is we’re not. In fact, consumer satisfaction studies repeatedly confirm it. Simply search on, “consumer study poor digital experience” and voila – hundreds of examples. One study conducted by Software Advice found over 90 percent of consumers had one or more deal-breaker digital experiences when seeking customer support on mobile.[i] So, in an age with so much technology at our fingertips, why are we falling short? What can we do to fix this?

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Too often, we fall short because we focus on the wrong problems in the wrong order. To correct this, it’s important to first consider a modern consumer’s mindset and what they’re demanding. With greater resolve, they’re chasing after nirvana, in a quest for brands that deliver products, services and experiences that are:

  • Valuable / relevant
  • Consistent / high-quality
  • Enjoyable / attractive / personalized
  • Familiar / trusted
  • Secure / lower risk
  • Compatible with values / social beliefs
  • Convenient / simple / timely

Enterprises, however, can’t perfect all seven of these deadly-important areas simultaneously. So, the trick is finding what matters most, and then using AI and automation technologies to help.

AI in business won’t magically transform a company with fundamental structural flaws, such as poorly designed products, no unique selling proposition, or cost containment issues. These take great human leadership, creativity, and collaboration to fix. And it won’t manage the job of building and maintaining corporate culture. But in other cases, AI applied pragmatically to streamline processes and eradicate friction can make an enormous difference.

What’s proven to be a winning recipe in business is paying attention to customer-centric details. Brands hyper-focused on customer experience build a lasting reputation and increase in value. Look at Apple, Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, and even Booking.com. All built on the backs of nailing digital experience, often with a mobile-first mentality. Yet, with seven major areas and hundreds of experience details to consider, where should you start?

Is convenience king?
Out of the above seven criteria, convenience may be the most important in terms of driving long-term value, and the one CX professionals can influence the most. Perfecting convenience can separate winners from losers; sellers from re-stockers. Consider this quote from a CEB study: [ii]

“Brands that help consumers simplify the purchase journey have customers who are 86 percent more likely to purchase their products and 115 percent more likely to recommend their brand to others.”

And convenience contributes to and builds up other factors, such as being viewed as valuable, familiar, and trusted. It may be one of the chief drivers of loyalty. It can even trump something like price. For example, wireless carriers have learned consumers prefer unlimited communication plans because they’re convenient and simple, even though they may cost more. [iii]

Consumers make impulsive and emotional purchase decisions when enough of the factors align, and tend to justify things afterwards. Since consumers’ assessment of convenience is qualitative, figuring out how to elicit positive emotional responses regarding convenience is crucial.

In a consumer’s mind, the label of convenience translates into a business being viewed as:

  • Useful and suitable
  • Easy to buy from, use, and transact with
  • Requiring less overall effort
  • Simple to understand / responsive to issues
  • A time saver

AI business
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Each is a judgment call by an individual, but with critical mass and time, these opinions converge to a collective market consensus (the wisdom of the crowd). They manifest themselves in the form of review scores, ratings, and tribally-shared social advice. It’s this reputation that drives commercial allegiance.

Largely, consumers make emotional decisions when they choose one product over another. Sometimes they want combinations that are seemingly impossible to get:

  • A ready-made desert that tastes great and is nutritional
  • A car that is inexpensive, fast, great looking, economical, and durable
  • A delicious pizza that comes in a few minutes, is made by an environmentally-conscience brand, and oh…costs less than $10

It’s no wonder brands struggle to satisfy whimsical consumer desires, but fickleness aside, they cry out for brands to simply simplify things. Ironically, they work longer and harder to live in a world that supplies them with exploding choices for everything but precocious little time to weigh options, which in turn drives them to crave simplicity in decision making. They demand trusted information that is easily accessible. They want user-friendly ways to weigh options, and help navigating processes. In a 2016 survey on travel shopping preferences, consumers picked ease of use as the top reason they booked using an online travel site. [iv]

AI knows there’s no second chance to make a first impression
Consumers want convenience, but which actions will achieve maximal impact? Before answering this, keep in mind a marketing 101 maxim: perception is nine tenths reality. And perception is often built-up on first impressions. Further, when an initial impression goes wrong, it takes multiple positive interactions to repair it. As such, consider using AI as tooling in helping elevate levels of perceived (and real) overall convenience in critical first-impression customer journeys such as:

  • Getting a quote
  • Completing an application
  • Navigating a sign-up or onboarding process
  • Completing an initial purchase
  • Setting up online payments

And during service scenarios such as:

  • Order status checking
  • Returns
  • Claims
  • Lost card replacement process
  • Scheduling an appointment
  • Finding a doctor

How does AI support these? If we agree that AI is a mixture of automation and intelligence technologies, AI can help streamline the process for consumers getting answers such as the status of an order, return, or claim. Further, consumers can even ask these systems to schedule a store or branch appointment, find the most convenient time and location, and then add the appointment to their calendar.

AI-powered chat bots (and other self-service portals) can provide 24 x 7 first-line support for answers to questions like:

  • How to transfer funds
  • Make an online payment
  • Get account and policy status

In many cases, without any human intervention, bots can answer questions, close out an inquiry, and even assist with completing a transaction. In situations requiring human agents, AI-based systems can orchestrate seamless hand-offs of data and case details, allowing humans to pick up precisely where machines left off.

Make no mistake, AI skills are already going far beyond performing simple tasks. Today, AI engines can give nuanced advice, surface unique insights, and provide proactive recommendations. The most sophisticated systems even factor in customer context, such as location, weather, mood, and motivation before arbitrating on the next-best-action.

In banking, for instance, AI can help track savings and spending habits, and send threshold alerts. To illustrate, suppose a consumer has a recurring transfer from checking to savings each month. AI can monitor account balances and send an alert when upcoming bill payments are forecasted to drain a checking account beyond non-fee thresholds.

In healthcare, there’s Dr. AI from HealthTap, who can engage in conversation aimed at providing triage and care advice, using a locally-stored health profile, a network of over 100,000 doctors, and Bayesian learning AI to serve up the next-best-advice.

What’s the right set of technologies for your stack?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. First the bad news – there is no one right answer, and with thousands of vendors (6,829 in this marketing landscape), open-source packages, and resulting combinations of solution stacks possible, there’s no evidence anyone has found the absolute best combination, or ever will.

Now the good news – you have a ton of alternatives, with many combinations likely to work, but finding a stable and winning blend is tricky. Some tools, on the surface, look easy to use but aren’t. Others won’t live up (functionally) to their marketing hype. The best advice is to form a solid basis with at most one or two platforms covering essential infrastructure (that you can’t afford to switch in-out), and make sure these platforms allow for plug and play with adjacent pieces likely to have shorter useful lives.

For example, find vendors with durable connectors for wrangling data into an actionable customer profile, a real-time hub that acts as a central brain to arbitrate customer decisions, and integrated customer analytics. These components are foundational, and must be centralized so they operate in a channel agnostic fashion. New channels may spring up, and others diminish in importance, but a decision engine which feeds on key behavior data, arbitrates decisions, and renders appropriate next-best-actions is a necessary constant.

Final thoughts
There’s a real irony forming with AI in business. We’re building and teaching computers to be more human, while as humans we’re being led and conditioned by our busy lives and workplaces to be more machine-like. The problem is computers are no humans, and humans are poor computers.

Step back and consider what’s best for the consumer. Providing great first impressions, as well as seamless and gratifying ongoing experiences, requires well-functioning and well-behaving humans and machines working in concert. Consumers want products and services they’re proud to recommend because they make life easier and more enjoyable. When things go wrong, they expect flexible help and fast solutions. When self-service isn’t working, they demand cases smoothly transition to well-informed, caring, and compassionate humans. Brands must skillfully, judiciously, and mindfully weave together computer systems with humans as they design for convenience in all the complexities of customer journeys.

Delivering convenience must be a paramount goal, so reflect on the unique characteristics of the individuals you serve and the nuances of their voyages. Dry run how each will navigate your services: some will be older and less familiar with technology; some will be capable of juggling five devices on five channels; sometimes technology will fail and require fallback processes.

Ultimately, your convenience reputation will be defined by a diverse set of consumers steering through a wide variety of conditions and processes. Use AI and humans to start off on the right foot, deliver consistently under normal operating conditions, and to proficiently handle the inevitable miscues.

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Endnotes:
[i] https://www.softwareadvice.com/resources/improve-cx-with-mobile-support/, January 2017
[ii] https://news.cebglobal.com/press-releases?item=128138, May 2012
[iii] https://www.theverge.com/2017/2/17/14647870/us-carrier-unlimited-plans-competition-tmobile-verizon-att-sprint, February 2017
[iV] http://www.traveltripper.com/blog/why-do-travelers-prefer-booking-with-otas/, August 2016

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