For many people, the general idea of artificial intelligence still conveys a dark, robot-master future.  Yet simply add the word “conversational” in front of it, and suddenly it’s a whole lot friendlier. 

Maybe that’s why conversational AI is this year’s “everywhere topic.” It’s a consensus pick in every technology forecast, a keynote subject at business, marketing and IT conferences, a core capability claimed by software vendors of all sizes and specializations, and the destination of millions in venture funding. As evidenced by this year’s CES, it’s also reaching ever further into the connected home, vehicle and workplace, at lightning speed. What’s more, conversational AI is a top priority on the 2019 strategic plan for nearly every company we talk with.

Touchless, Screenless Interface

Until conversational AI, the user interface for most of today’s tech had been the keyboard, mouse and touchscreen.  Now, we can build voice-driven interfaces that are hands-free, understand natural language and will increasingly deliver a screenless experience. But while the avalanche of chatbots, digital assistants and voice-enabled smart devices have lit the fuse on the conversational AI rocket, these capabilities are really just the beginning. 

Consider the possibility of asking your kitchen smart speaker to read a recipe aloud while you run to the pantry, select ingredients from the shelves and begin preparing dinner.  Running low on pasta sauce?  Just say the command to add it your grocery list or even place an order for another few bottles. Consumers, of course, are seeing more and more examples of the brands and services they connect with throughout their daily lives experimenting with conversational AI. 

We’ve supported dozens of companies in bringing these new ideas to life. 

  • For quick-serve restaurants, we’ve built a drive-thru solution to speed up ordering and improve accuracy.
  • For banking, we’ve created a virtual agent mortgage advisor.
  • For automotive companies, we’ve developed digital assistants to help shoppers compare vehicles and manage maintenance appointments.
  • For airlines, we’ve built a loyalty program chatbot to help track flights, luggage and points. 

We’re now launching conversational AI projects for businesses in even more industries, like hotels, healthcare providers, insurance companies, soft drink and snack food producers, retail stores, pharmaceuticals companies and wealth management services. 

A Double-Edged Sword 

While the upside potential for conversational AI is increasingly clear, this new user interface (UI) is also forcing businesses to evolve.  For many companies, adopting conversational AI won’t be just a means to improve customer convenience; it will mean survival.

Recall in the mid 90’s, when the new user interfaces made possible from internetworking, web browsers and software as-a-service helped launch companies like Amazon, Google and Salesforce.com.  A decade later, the touchscreen interface, spurred on by smartphones, mobile apps and always-on connectivity, kicked off another innovation wave, creating companies like Uber and Instagram, new platforms like Apple’s App Store and the explosion in messaging services.

In both of these eras, big advancements in UI led to both a gold rush of new business models, ecosystems and market expansion and transformed (in some cases decimated) whole industries.

Five Strategies for Going Big with Conversational AI

Fortunately, we’ve seen some best practices and strategies emerge that can help enterprise leaders prepare for the opportunities ahead: 

  1. Invest both for immediate success and longer-term tangible benefits. These can include boosting sales, increasing customer convenience, improving the customer experience, reducing costs, etc.

    Example: For a financial services client, we helped develop an Alexa skill to voice-enable balance inquiries, transfers and fund information requests.  This skill is part of a full-year plan for voice and chat solutions across multiple channels and devices and is now being recreated to support Google Assistant devices.

  1. Link projects so that code, frameworks, lessons and best practices build upon one another.

    Example: We helped a pharmaceuticals company establish a conversational AI center of excellence that includes methodologies and templates to score and prioritize use cases, establish a governance framework and maintain an ongoing enhancement process for live, deployed solutions.

  1. Let your customers be your guide for how you prioritize voice skills, chatbots, virtual agents, AI-enabled mobile apps, etc.

    Example: A commercial airline client brought in our conversational AI advisory team for a customer needs assessment after successfully deploying its first two chatbot initiatives.  The project includes customer interviews to determine feature and platform prioritization for help establishing a multi-channel/multi-modal roadmap for 2019.

  1. Seek innovation partners able to support strategy and roadmaps – not just deliver tech skills for point solutions and isolated projects.

    Example: We worked with a European automotive company to manage a 20-country rollout of voice, chat and mobile solutions for a customer sales and service initiative.  The project includes business case and ROI analytics, user experience design, parallel deployments into the 20 countries and ongoing enhancement of launched components. 

  1. Think beyond chatbots, voice skills and smart speakers to an omnichannel, multi-device and multi-modal future of highly contextualized, intelligent, transactional functionality.

    Example: A healthcare insurer has asked us to architect and deploy a conversational AI framework capable of scaling across web, mobile and voice devices; supporting Google, Alexa and Siri assistants; addressing multiple messaging services; and delivering secure and compliant privacy. The insurer’s goal is to fully operationalize this framework for all the channels their members might use when seeking assistance with their healthcare coverages and options.

Conversational AI Grows Up

This acceleration of interest suggests conversational AI is hitting its growth phase. Business cases are more defined, expectations are higher, solutions are more complex, and everyone we talk to is focused on integrating fast-expanding lists of projects into a cohesive, enterprise strategy and dynamic roadmap.

As the conversational AI imperative becomes more clear, these five strategies for success will help steer these increasingly vital initiatives. 

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Matt Smith

Matt Smith

Matt Smith is Associate Vice-President at Cognizant and Conversational AI Practice Leader, where he leads a team dedicated to helping companies understand,... Read more