By Matt Pigott - July 1st, 2016

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Part three in our three-part series on customer service in a digital world

Remember Microsoft’s Clippy, the little paper clip that used to wink and perform strange gyrations at the top of the screen before offering tidbits of cheap and useless advice? Well, he was the early prototype of chatbots. But new incarnations are far, far smarter. We’re talking a leap as long and large as from the Penny Farthing to the Ferrari. Today, bots are closer in likeness to Hal, the sentient computer in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 Space Odyssey, than the irksome Clippy.

Voice recognition paving the way for customer service innovations 

Consider that it wasn’t much further back than yesterday that every query was typed into a search engine. Today, increasingly, we find ourselves querying Siri, Echo, Google. Smart assistants are moving into the home, and they’re getting better at understanding questions and responding to them. Five years from now, a little more perhaps, they will be a key component in everyday life, as ubiquitous as televisions and radios. In the rapidly shifting digital arena, it’s yet another puzzle piece that needs to be assessed in the marketing mix.

Voice recognition that drives traffic to the brand websites and chatbots that deal with the inflow are likely to become a key part of the omnichannel model over the next few years. Because, whether it’s a string of keywords typed into a search engine or a spoken question handled by voice recognition algorithms, the analytic process is much the same. Typed or spoken? Screen or the speaker in the corner? The gap between the two is now negligible. 

Apart from the hands-free aspect, a notable advantage to voice recognition devices is that they are able to act as a funnel consolidating otherwise disjointed omnichannel experiences. Instead of skipping awkwardly from one app to another to complete tasks, an intelligent assistant can take care of the process, providing consumers with the appearance of a singular function. Somehow, brands need to find a way to insert themselves into that process.

It’s happening: brands use chatbot tech to reach and engage consumers

For brands thinking that this is a distant possibility, not an imminent probability, consider that Uber, Open Table, Grub Hub are already working with Google’s Allo. Mobile messaging assisted by artificial intelligence joining the conversational flow is already here. Real-time intelligent suggestions that facilitate the decision-making process are, like the nearest entertainment venue or eatery, just around the corner. A movie at a nearby cinema? A nearby Italian restaurant? Allo can tease out keyword references and make immediate use of them. It’s engine search on steroids.

Why is this important to brands? Because it means they need to start thinking about the new digital ecosystem in which they operate. If a company such as Google literally becomes the environment through which most brand-consumer relations (at least in the digital realm) take place, brands need to have a presence. Otherwise, it’s the same as having a brick and mortar outlet with no visible building.

Soon, consumers will be more reliant on the intelligent systems that connect everything, and brands will have to somehow participate in the chicken-and-egg barn dance that ensues, hosted by the tech giants . Above all, knowing that mobile is bound to be the primary connecting device, marketers will need to work out how best to gain access and integrate to make the most of their omnichannel strategy. Failing to do this will be failing to provide people with the level of customer experience they have already come to expect.

Allo Facebook

While Google fine-tunes Allo, Facebook is pumping fresh functionality into messenger. Check out its upbeat, ultra-millennialist new video. Bringing bots to phones to create a more contextualized experience for its users is high on the agenda, and brands are taking notes, lots of them. Why? Because when the world’s largest networking platform creates a new tool that can, in real time, connect 50million businesses with nearly a billion potential customers, it’s hard to ignore. The fact that brands have been invited to build their own bots through which to interface with customers just made Facebook the biggest broker, the biggest go-between, on the planet.

As this part of the tech sector presses forward with fresh innovation, brands are becoming ever more reliant on 'search and social' third parties to carry out normal business functions and provide high-level customer service. 

Real solutions or a third party headache?

For this reason, many companies are uneasy about the shift of power away from them, and are concerned about the handling of their data. Does brand data become Facebook data by default? And will this, in future, have a bearing on customer relations?

If there’s a facilitator / mediator / go-between, call it what you will, be it Google, Apple, Amazon or Facebook, suddenly there’s another brand (much larger in most cases) sitting squarely in the middle of the room. Not a third party as such, but a central party. An omnipotent landlord leasing against the deeds. As the marketing landscape changes, brands are effectively entering into a tacit agreement with tech giants, in the way that anybody who wants to drive a car enters a tacit agreement with the transport department. This is the order of things as brands move forward on the expanding information superhighway, and for now, there isn't much that can be done about it.

Not becoming overly reliant on any one tech powerhouse is going to be a key challenge for brands that feel their hands are tied. Everyone wants to harness the power of seamlessly interlocking touch points, and nail omnichannel. Even so, only 19 percent of CMOs recently surveyed by the Chief Marketing Council feel that they are getting it right, and that’s a problem for delivering a great customer experience. A meager five percent believed their content and commerce to be well integrated. Couple this with a recent Accenture  study that discovered around 60 percent of 13,000 consumers surveyed experienced inconsistencies in their multichannel brand experiences and it’s clear to see–there’s still a long way to go.

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