Sales talk: how conversational AI can win over customers

Conversational AI can mimic human interactions. With today’s consumers turned off by the hard sell, the technology holds strong potential for businesses

When it comes to sales, businesses should reverse Elvis’s famous advice: a little more conversation and a little less action, please. 

The secret to success with today’s consumers revolves around small talk and a long-term approach. Direct approaches – seeking to add notches to the sales equivalent of a bedpost – are a huge turn-off for customers. 

Happily, so-called conversational AI is now mature enough to assist adroitly with the more mundane topics, enabling humans to enter the chat room later, at the most appropriate point.

Conversational AI refers to tech solutions such as chatbots or virtual agents that use vast volumes of data, machine learning and natural language processing to imitate human interactions. Businesses today must adopt the technology as a matter of urgency, with laggards likely to lose out.

Technology doesn’t have working hours like a human employee does, meaning that customers can gain the help they desire on their terms

Over 70% of customers expect conversational service, meaning human-like interactions – complete with emojis, gifs, images and videos – whenever they engage with a brand, according to Zendesk. But only 40% of businesses can deliver this successfully. 

Little wonder the global software-as-a-service company recently announced new capabilities for its Sunshine Platform, a customer relationship management service, including conversational automation via bot technology. The upgrade enables organisations to expand automation to messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and allows them to build and train custom bots to address common issues.

“A quick conversation can resolve most things in life,” says Matthias Goehler, Zendesk’s chief technology officer in EMEA. “Embracing advances in AI to deliver conversational exchanges with customers easily is a natural direction for customer experience (CX) teams to take.”

Resolving customer issues 

One of the most significant benefits of conversational AI is that all customer communications are retained, Goehler adds. This means a more complete picture is achieved, allowing businesses to understand people’s personal preferences better and enrich their experience. It facilitates a personalised, data-driven service, removing some of the burdens on human agents and empowering them to do more for the customer in less time, he says.

“A conversational approach makes interactions more informed – built with the context of the customer’s history. When done right, it can even help increase a customer’s spending with you by making useful and simple recommendations to purchase from within a chat.”

Katie King is the author of two books about AI for sales and marketing and a member of the government’s All-Party Parliamentary Group Taskforce for the enterprise adoption of AI. Companies that embrace conversational AI will charm employees and customers alike, she says. 

“Often, many of the queries that cross the service agent’s desk are frequently asked questions with simple answers,” she says. “While these queries might be easy to answer, they still take up valuable time and limit the agent’s capabilities to handle some of the more complex issues. It’s overwhelming and leads to faster employee burnout and potential staffing issues for the company.”

Conversational AI can help tackle this challenge, so appeals to many organisations, notes King. “AI can cut out that first step of the process by engaging the customer and potentially resolving their issue without human intervention,” she says. “Additionally, technology doesn’t have working hours like a human employee does, meaning that customers can gain the help they desire on their terms.”

When done right, it can even help increase a customer’s spending with you by making useful and simple recommendations to purchase

With the surge in energy prices, concerned customers of E.ON – the largest energy and renewable electricity supplier in the UK – have certainly wanted help. Conversational AI is easing the load. 

Nikolai Berenbrock is the company’s head of conversational experiences. He says the company currently has more than 50 conversational AI solutions across the group, serving customers and employees and covering about 30% of demand. “This has enabled us to offer a better customer service experience and a massive reduction in our operational costs,” Berenbrock says.

E.ON uses AI to automate repetitive tasks so that agents are “available to jump in where they can make a valuable difference”, he adds. The technology “allows us to scale our customer service in a location and time-independent way, so that we can be where our customers are by offering our service on our website in a LiveChat channel, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, telephony channel, etc, whenever they need us, 24/7.” 

Talking up the possibilities

Jason Costain is head of fraud prevention at NatWest, which serves 19 million customers across 12 banking and financial services brands. He offers another example of how conversational AI is being utilised. 

“Using voice-biometric technology, we’re building a clear picture of our customers’ voices and what criminal voices sound like,” he says. “We can detect when we get a fraudulent voice coming in across our network as soon as it happens. Using a combination of biometric and behavioural data, we now have far greater confidence that we are speaking to our genuine customers and keeping them safe.”

Demand for conversational AI isn’t limited to customer experience, says Goehler. “We’re seeing huge demand from companies using our solutions for employee experience, with tickets filled by corporate employees jumping 31% last year – nearly double the rates seen by customer-facing support teams at B2B and B2C companies,” he says, signposting the direction of travel.

Despite the clear advantages of conversational AI and the momentum behind the technology, Goehler sounds a note of caution to business leaders who, to quote another Elvis song, can’t help falling in love with the technology. “While just over half of EMEA companies report that chatbots are becoming more human-like, AI can’t – and shouldn’t – be a 100% solution,” he says.

Zendesk research indicates more than 60% of customers will walk away after one poor experience – up 22% from last year. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, who can blame their suspicious minds?

This article was first published in Raconteur’s AI for Business report in June 2022

Why Covid is no longer an excuse for poor customer service

Businesses can no longer blame the pandemic for suboptimal service, but those that boosted their digital offering are well placed to thrive

Almost 18 months after the UK enforced its first Covid-19 lockdown, some organisations are still using the disruption of the pandemic as an excuse for providing a poor customer experience. 

People were initially more accepting of the suboptimal delivery of even basic services, be it unanswered telephone calls, infuriating delays for goods, or missing out on vital medical appointments. We were collectively numbed by the trauma of the pandemic. Clapping on our doorsteps, we diligently believed that “we’re all in this together”.

Granted, the crisis will leave ugly scars on businesses large and small. It’s evident now, though, with a sense of normality returning – in part thanks to the administration of approximately 90 million vaccinations – that consumers have had enough. They are quick to admonish companies they suspect are taking advantage of the situation and readily call out below-average customer experience. 

This cuts both ways. Recent research from verified reviews platform Feefo indicates consumers are now 29% more likely to leave feedback – good or bad – than before the pandemic.

The latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index – a huge cross-sector measurement of customer service in the UK, with 10,000 consumers rating a total of 45,000 customer experiences – in July found that almost a quarter of respondents (24%) believe that some organisations have used Covid-19 as an excuse for poor service. Specifically, companies that fail to communicate with transparency and authenticity – if at all – are more likely to spur the ire of consumers.

Doubling down on tech

“It has been well documented that businesses are facing ongoing issues with stock, supply chain and staff,” says Jo Causon, CEO of The Institute of Customer Service, which publishes the UKCSI twice a year. “The issue is how the organisation manages the overall experience and communication, helping the customer to navigate the problem, indicating when to expect delivery, offering alternatives and being honest and explicit upfront.”

Moreover, customers expect considerably better experiences compared to pre-pandemic times. Those organisations that continue to blame Covid for poor customer experience risk damaging their reputations irreparably, while ceding market share to progressive competitors who have seized the opportunity to transform and upgrade their offering by investing in technology solutions.

“The past 18 months have exposed businesses’ strengths and weaknesses,” says Causon. “Those that have fared well have embraced new technologies, been proactive with their advice and support, reached out and considered the implications for their customers.” 

Brands that have succeeded during the pandemic and attracted and retained consumer loyalty have “involved the customer in the design and delivery” of new products or services and provided greater “channel choice”, she notes.

This chimes with Celine Maher, vice president of UK and Ireland for customer service software company Zendesk, whose recent research found roughly half of UK consumers will switch retailers after just one bad experience. For multiple disappointments the number rockets to 80%.

“Brands need to be able to meet their customers where they are by ensuring they are putting their needs first,” she says. One option is to take an omnichannel approach to customer experience, Maher adds. “This helps businesses to have meaningful conversations with customers on whichever channel they feel most comfortable with, without needing to monitor across several platforms.”

However, “providing a fast and friendly service is no longer enough”, Maher warns. “In such a period of uncertainty, customers are seeking proactivity and empathy from businesses.”

A hybrid world

Benjamin Braun, chief marketing officer in Europe for electronics giant Samsung, agrees that quick-thinking brands have used the coronavirus crisis to reevaluate their purpose and customer experience offering. They realised an ecommerce presence was imperative to survive, and used customer data to build more personalised experiences and generate loyalty. 

“Almost overnight, a company website was more than just a shop window – it became their only open shop,” Braun says. 

With this shift came an increased need for a better online experience, he adds.

“Customers expected and demanded support at every step of the online shopping journey to replace the traditional in-person shopping support. The rise of omnichannel has been phenomenal and a real mark of success for many brands.”

Brands need to be able to meet their customers where they are by ensuring they are putting their needs first

Conversely, “even the most beloved brand can lose favour if their digital experience isn’t up to scratch”, says Paul Robson, president of international at Adobe. We’re entering a new era in experience, he adds, where digital is the new battleground.

“Suddenly, we went from a world with digital to a digital-first world, and those brands that took the opportunity to invest in the tools that help them build deeper direct relationships with their customers will emerge from the pandemic far stronger than those that didn’t.”

As we venture into this new epoch, which Braun calls “a hybrid world”, he believes that customisation will only get stronger. 

“As consumers return to the high street, they crave an integrated experience that merges the physical and digital domains. As a result, consumers expect a tailored service in-store while continuing to utilise new online services.”

Doubling down on tech and investing in artificial intelligence is necessary for organisations that seek to thrive in the coming months and years, says Braun. “The way brands can embrace customer needs is to put these first continuously,” he advises. “Each shop, online or in-store, must put customer experience at the heart of its service. Data and insights must be leveraged to better tailor every customer experience.”

The prospect of a digital-physical customer experience offering is certainly thrilling for consumers. Brands have no excuse – including blaming the coronavirus crisis – not to invest in technology and engage with customers, wherever they are.

Box: Raising the bar for in-person customer experience

Could improved in-person customer experiences be the key to generating – or rebuilding – consumer loyalty for brands? 

After 18 months of takeaways and luxury home-restaurant kits, for instance, will people still be likely to spend their money at a high-street chain? Or are they going to splash the cash in upmarket restaurants, where the experience feels more special? Time – and data – will tell.

Away from the restaurant industry, though, there’s no time to test and tweak; with the high street back open, and already under severe pressure from the ecommerce boom, businesses have been forced to evolve. Sachin Jangam, partner for retail at Infosys Consulting, says that just-walk-out stores like Amazon Go – the first outside the US opened in Ealing, west London, in March – are a “natural progression of the changes we have already seen in retail”.

Tom Burch, managing director of immersive experience studio Pixel Artworks, notes that Lego charges $15 for a unique, interactive 20-minute experience at its flagship New York store. This so-called “retailtainment” is groundbreaking.

“That Lego can charge for this experience is proof of the shift in market demand,” says Burch. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing such experiences coming to major UK city centres. Stores will begin to better delineate between what digital can do and what only stores can deliver.” 

Physical retail will continue to shift towards fully immersive brand playgrounds, says Burch.

“Retail stores might even have no physical stock, but engage their customers with creative and unique augmented reality opportunities, with purchases delivered to your door,” he adds. “Ultimately, successful retailers understand that consumers want a shopping experience from stores, not just to buy stuff.”

This article first appeared in Raconteur’s Customer Experience and Loyalty report, published in September