69% of UK consumers want instant answers

Can emerging technologies make this a reality?

I believe we are at the very start in a new age of brand-consumer conversation. We are witnessing a technology and demand-fuelled 'perfect storm'. 

Over the last decade, three trends have emerged and aligned to create a substantially different world for our businesses to compete in. As leaders in IT, it is our duty to understand and react to these changes in technology and sociology:   

1. Consumers have switched to messaging: 

In 2015, consumer behaviour moved from social media to social messaging. More people now use messaging apps like WhatsApp, Messenger and WeChat to communicate than networks such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Also, the rate of growth in their adoption is faster. 

2. Machines have become (more) useful: 

Advances in natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) mean brands can now rely on computers for human-like interactions. Rapidly increasing in accuracy and breadth of topics, artificial intelligence (AI) has gained mainstream media attention through the hype of chatbots, powering 24 hours a day, on-demand, conversation. 

3. Individuals want to be individuals: 

Human affinity for technology is reshaping the consumer space; they know businesses have the technology needed to deliver a personalised service. In a survey by Gartner, 89% of businesses stated a personalised customer experience is already becoming their main point of competition. When the younger demographic is profiled, this need for personalisation is even greater.

This culmination of changing consumer behaviour, advances in technology and the demand for personal services mean we are on the verge of a cultural shift that IT leaders should be preparing for. 

ubisend prepared by commissioning Morar Consulting to survey 2,000 UK consumers. I wanted to understand their attitude towards the rising growth in chatbots. I also wanted to understand if consumers do need everything on-demand and if our AI-driven solutions were the answer. 

AI conversation - the results 

The research found that three-quarters (75%) of UK consumers have not yet spoken to a chatbot - hardly an ideal start for my hypothesis of consumers being more tech-savvy. However, the majority of consumers are aware of chatbots and know what they are (57%) and over a third (35%) want to see more companies using chatbots to answer their questions. 

Let's look at this a bit closer. Chatbots and AI hit the mainstream press in April 2016 when Facebook opened an API to its Messenger platform (I know, I know, us tech slaves have been harping on about AI for years). But before the media buzz of 2016, how many consumers really knew about AI and chatbots? 10%? 5%? 1%? Personally, I think hardly any; certainly below 5%, if not below 1%. However just over a year later, 57% of consumers are now aware of them. How's that for growth? 

The results also support IT leaders taking a closer look at AI-based conversational solutions. More than half (58%) of consumers stated that reaching the desired outcome is the most important thing when communicating with a brand, and 21% see chatbots as the easiest way to contact a business.

Can an always online chatbot help consumers reach their desired outcome? Can they do it cheaper and faster than IRL humans? 

We all know AI is not perfect, and it is a long way from replicating true human-level conversation. I recommend chatbot implementations do not pretend to be human. Instead, a chatbot should clearly state it is a machine and can help with X/Y/Z. Also, it should give the user an option to connect with a human and fall-back to that human gracefully should something go wrong.   

That being said, here in early 2017, NLP can handle simple, narrow scope conversations.   

The survey also asked: "Which of the following would you most use a chatbot for?" 69% responded with answers on opening times and services, and 40% wanted to receive offers and deals. These forms of narrow conversation are perfect for a chatbot. It can respond 24 hours a day seven days a week across any digital channel in any language. So yes; in this case AI is faster and cheaper than humans. 

If you are considering meeting this perfect storm head on with a machine-led company voice, we need to consider the impact on your brand. 

The data shows that one in five (21%) consumers would consider purchasing through a conversation with a chatbot. Forty-three percent (43%) think brands that adopt the technology are innovative and a further 30% consider them helpful. 

That this percentage of the audience is already willing to spend money through a chatbot astounds me. The average amount a user would be prepared to spend is £314; whilst millennials are happy to go up to £481. Perhaps these stats are a nod towards my thoughts on the need for on-demand and hyper-personalisation.   

The evidence suggests that if IT can get the solution working correctly, the brand team gets it talking as the consumer expects and the marketing team delivers the correct content - consumers are willing to spend via chatbots. 

The future 

I started this post by asking if technology can provide instant answers. I believe it can, and so much more. 

IT leaders have the chance to innovate in the customer-brand relationship. You have the opportunity to provide a solution that reaches consumers on the digital channels they prefer to use, and to communicate whenever they decide to make contact.   

Consumers are willing to talk to businesses to get answers via new channels, and technology can now match expectations of how brands should respond. 

The perfect storm has arrived. 

Dean Withey, CEO and founder of chatbot company, ubisend 

Image Credit: Montri Nipitvittaya / Shutterstock