Conversation has long been the cornerstone of a great customer experience. That said, it has always been a uniquely human characteristic.
But that’s beginning to change, thanks to emerging technologies such as chatbots and, more recently, voice-activated digital assistants, which are creating new platforms and opportunities for marketers in the APAC region to connect with customers.
In fact, research from a trio of WPP agencies found that in China, specifically, use of voice tech is higher than the global average, with searches for product information having the highest degree of usage. Similarly, 95% of Thai smartphone users say they are enthusiastic about using voice on their devices.
Santosh Kumar Gannavarapu, chief growth officer at MerkleSokrati, has worked with chatbots across the finance and auto industries in India. Conversational interfaces, he said, are making their way to the mainstream and will be here to stay.
“It’s a technology that has been helpful for call centres, sales agents, and marketing suites,” he told CMO.com.
The technology is quickly improving, too, added associate professor James Curran, director of the National Computer Science School at the University of Sydney. Driving performance is the massive volumes of data that the companies behind the devices—Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Amazon—are collecting, along with statistical analysis and machine-learning smarts, he said.
“In terms of state-of-the-art, what you are seeing in terms of commercial products, like Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant, is it,” Curran told CMO.com.
Asked And Answered
At this point, conversational interfaces currently come into play for handling basic queries and removing the human element. This means customers can ask, “Where is my order?” or “How long do you take to ship?” and get a natural reply from a conversational interface.
“These are typical queries that I think [conversational interfaces] can solve that do not require any intricate or complicated execution,” said Hitesh Malhotra, chief marketing officer at Indian beauty retailer Nykaa.
Conversational interfaces also make for excellent recommendation engines, along with solving basic customer-care issues and helping customers navigate through a shopping experience, he told CMO.com.
“These are good use cases and can have significant impact on revenue,” Malhotra said. “You can lessen the number of customers who are not getting the right answer at the right time.”
That’s great for now, but according to the University of Sydney’s Curran, the true test of a conversational interface will be when the conversation between a human and a computer goes off track.
“The challenge is what these agents do with unexpected material, because humans would ask the right question, but machines need to be trained with lots of additional voice content in order for them to make the right responses,” he said.
Another consideration, according to Rita Arrigo, Microsoft Australia’s chief digital adviser, is how to deliver something useful to consumers.
“Using conversational interfaces, you can open up 24x7 channels to your customers,” she told CMO.com. “The challenge for organisations is getting your data ready and continually experimenting to deliver a great conversational interface.”
Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Berkeley, Calif.-based Semantic Machines demonstrates its commitment to developing conversational AI, Arrigo added.
“The intelligent assistants of the future need the ability to have a natural dialogue instead of just responding to commands,” she said. “This is the dawn of ‘conversational AI,’” Arrigo said.
All Eyes On China
For a glimpse at where conversational AI is headed, we can look to China, where the growing smart home market is said to be worth $US22.8 billion this year.
This year Internet powerhouses JD.com, Baidu, and Alibaba have all introduced more advanced speaker devices that integrate with their full suite of services, including e-commerce, social media, and telecommunications.
Indeed, by leveraging the enormous amount of customer data within their ecosystems, manufacturers can continue to improve the intelligence that drives their speakers and provide users with a more cohesive and multifunctional experience than what has been available in the past.
One notable feature of these new products is inclusion of display screens, which market research firm GfK said is indicative of a future trend. The displays are designed to accommodate Chinese consumers who are used to using their mobile phones as a one-stop-shop for many aspects of everyday life.
Baidu’s CEO, Robin Li echoed that sentiment. "The smart speaker with a big screen is a new category, a new species, representing a new direction," he said.