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Replacing the form could be conversational AI’s greatest triumph

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Why the traditional forms-based approach to customer engagement is about to be screwed up and thrown away

Man delivering a Disrupt CX presentation infront of audience

Speaking at Sabio’s Disrupt CX 2019 event I suggested that today’s AI revolution is bringing about the most extreme period of change since the Industrial Revolution 200 to 250 years ago.

From a historical perspective it’s easy to see changes in production methods, new power sources and the rise of the factory as logical developments, but I suspect it didn’t feel that way at the time. The individuals and organisations that succeeded were those able to identify the potential impact of new technologies and processes, were smart enough to invest early and had the determination to work through the inevitable early failures that innovation can bring.

Working to leverage technology and AI to deliver competitive advantage for BGL Group, I can see clear parallels particularly when it comes to enabling a frictionless experience for our customers. However, it’s really important that we don’t just work to optimise the performance of existing customer engagement processes – particularly as AI (and conversational AI specifically) has the potential to replace what has become CX’s biggest friction point – the form!

Growing up in the 1970s, I remember visiting the local post office where every wall and table top was covered with forms. Forms to pay money into an account and forms to take money out. Forms to send a parcel, forms to apply for a passport, forms to tax a car. For any conversation you wished to have there was a printed form to capture the right information, in the right format. If you didn’t know which form to use, there was a form to explain which form should be used for which action.

And it wasn’t just the Post Office. In the 1980s every organisation was powered by forms, driving process standardisation and generating vast storage requirements. Looking back it now seems archaic. So surely, it’s good that with the advent of the digital revolution we’ve managed to move beyond the humble form? Unfortunately not, in fact it’s the transition to digital that has allowed the form to break out of organisations and entangle itself into almost every aspect of our modern lives.

The sad reality is that much of our acclaimed advances in customer-centred design have only served to make our traditional forms look a little more attractive. They may look smarter, feature moving graphics or enable some pre-population of data, but most mobile apps and websites are often little more than poorly disguised forms in modern clothing. It perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that, just as everyone hated filling out forms in the past, today’s customers are equally unhappy with the form’s latest iteration. The form dehumanises our interactions, and I believe it’s still continuing to undermine customer experience today.

Humans are hardwired to have conversations

While forms may clearly present data and do a good job of standardising input, their inherent structure and simplification is a poor way of ensuring that we fully understand the needs of the customer – and that the customer fully understands what we are offering in return. In the insurance sector our customers are dealing with important and complex issues – a fire may have damaged their property, they could have been in a car accident, or perhaps they are thinking about life insurance and what might happen after they die. It’s almost impossible for any forms-based dialogue to adequately capture the depth or nuance of these interactions.

Put simply, most people need to explore the information they are given; ask questions, clarify meanings and discuss implications. Very few can read and immediately fully understand anything but the most basic concepts. That’s why humans, by nature, are hardwired to have conversations with one another. Conversations may be imprecise and have a tendency to meander as both parties explore subjects, check understanding and uncover underlying and associated topics, but they are not quite as inefficient as we first think. So the spoken word may, in practice, be a fast way of transferring and understanding data as it calls upon the more advanced of our natural human capabilities to communicate and comprehend.

Existing barriers to engagement

Ideally from a CX perspective we would give every customer the opportunity to speak with an expert Customer Services person. Information could be shown to customers via a range of formats, available on the device that’s most convenient for them and with the chance to discuss their thoughts and insights as they go. We would meander through a journey with them, exploring their needs and questions, clarifying understanding and resolving problems along the way. All with a single aim, to ensure that the customer gets precisely what they need and benefits from a comprehensive understanding.

Offering this service to all customers would be great, however there are some barriers:

  • Our current technology demands highly structured linear data collection with standardised input, and isn’t ready yet to support meandering conversations and potential ambiguities
  • The scale, cost and operational complexity of servicing all customers with a human expert able to spend as much time as is needed is inherently prohibitive
  • Customers have come to expect instant 24/7 access. Offering expert human support on this basis adds unachievable complexity and cost
Breaking free of the form with conversational AI

The good news is that AI developments are now showing how we can break free from traditional forms-led prescriptive engagement. The shift towards conversational AI, for example, promises a move away from simple linear, transactional customer journeys, enabling our CX teams to support the kind of meandering, messy customer journeys that closely mimic authentic human conversations.

While initially complex to orchestrate, this new generation of self-learning conversational customer engagement will:

  • Support customers by gently and naturally exploring any points of ambiguity or misunderstanding
  • Allow customers to explore multiple intentions within a single interaction
  • Enable true multi-modal experiences, representing information in multiple-forms on a multitude of devices to each customer
  • Ensure that when customer requests become too complex for AI agents to deal with, or become emotionally charged, conversations can be handed over seamlessly to an expert person

Effective conversational AI engagement clearly delivers automation benefits for organisations, while at the same time the combination of true, human-like conversations combined with all the convenience and simplicity of a digital service – backed up by a person where needed – will give customers access to immediate 24/7 support for their complex interactions.

When does conversational AI become mainstream?

AI is clearly an area of active research, particularly in China where WeChat is already doing very complex conversational AI and Alibaba now uses bot technology to field 95 per cent of its calls successfully. CX specialists such as Sabio are also working to help firms that have already realised transformational CX benefits such as automating the identification and verification of a voice interaction to unlock similar digital customer journey advantages through automation. This kind of automation can take many forms, from core customer automation payments through to the 100 per cent automation of all calls, with human assistance positioned as an added value for digital CX engagement.

In my personal opinion, we are within two years of this becoming a mainstream reality.
Most of the constituent technologies now exist, albeit some in a very early form. The complexity relating to ambiguity in language and meandering multi-intention conversational experiences is obviously challenging as we evolve from simple to highly complex interactions but is slowly being overcome. The rate of learning around the orchestration of these conversations is also now increasing at a vastly increased pace as more and more organisations try these concepts at scale.

The technologies and determination are now in place to break down the traditional CX forms paradigm, and the form – for so many years unnoticed is about to be screwed up and thrown away. When this happens the comfort of so much of how we operate today will fundamentally shift. Our customers will finally be freed to have the brilliant experiences they deserve – and will increasingly come to demand. However, the associated transformation challenges for organisations will be substantial.

As the conversational AI lights shift from red-amber to green, the race to adopt and adapt is beginning. There’s clearly a lot of fundamental work we still need to do in order to design, build and operate genuinely frictionless conversational journeys, but the technology is now no longer the primary barrier to its progress. In fact, I expect it will be the softer elements of how we create and manage non-linear AI conversational customer journeys that will prove more complex. And, given that we now expect conversational AI to break through over the next 12 to 18 months, it’s going to be a challenge that brands will have to meet at pace if they are to stay on top of the disruption that this change will cause in their industry.

Download the speaker presentations from Disrupt CX 2019 here.

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