I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a senior leader at one of our clients, a global consumer goods company, to talk about how we might help the company with conversational AI. Over the course of our discussion, the business leader continuously stressed three distinct themes of where chatbots, virtual agents and natural language solutions are impacting her business, today.

  • First, this category of capabilities is the biggest game-changer since the mid-‘90s, when websites became the virtual front door for every business. 
  • Second, it’s all about customer interaction, user experience and extending the brand. “Putting the technology first is a huge mistake,”she said.
  • Third, she’s terrified (her words) by how far she’s already fallen behind the leaders in her industry. Her direct statement: “It honestly wakes me in the middle of the night!”

When you hear admissions like these from a CXO leader once, it’s head-turning, particularly that point about being behind the competition. But a week later, I had nearly an identical conversation, this time with a telecom services client. When it happened yet again, with a financial services executive, I finally got it. Conversational AI really is something big; it’s scary-disruptive, and it’s absolutely happening, right now.  

What’s the Big Deal?

Is conversational AI really all that, or did everybody just come back from the same conference? Is their concern valid – that they are already falling behind the fast innovators? 

Yes, it really is that big a deal. First this: Gartner reports that “by 2018 more than two billion people will use conversational AI to interact with VPAs, VCAs and other AI-enabled smartphones and connected devices on a regular basis.”* Let’s see, college football has just started, so that means … oh boy, 2018 is barely three months away!  More importantly, you can bet a bunch of those two billion people may just want to buy something over that talking speaker, smartphone or HomePod.

Isn’t this really just a new way for getting the news or ordering take out? Whether you sell value meals, mutual funds, airline tickets, sports cars or hotel rooms, you better be two things in the voice-enabled marketplace:

  1. Easy for your customers to find – at the sound of their voice.
  2. Even easier to buy from once they connect with you.

From Clicks to Conversation

Vanity URLs will be as pointless as Yellow Pages ads. 

In a conversational AI world, our virtual assistants will search, open, fetch, command and engage the dozens or more websites, portals, apps and systems we all interact with on a daily basis. “My agent does that” becomes the new “there’s an app for that.” Take any of the “art of the possible” scenarios that conversational AI has already brought into play. Here are a few.

  • From your car’s dashboard, Siri orders your next pair of running shoes during your morning commute. 
  • While you’re making dinner, Alexa helps you shop for mortgages, compare property values and schedule meetings with the lenders you like best.
  • At the end of a long travel day, your hotel’s Magic Mirror reconfirms your next morning’s meeting, emails the overnight sales report to your team and turns on your favorite white noise.

In all these situations, the interaction becomes the brand when natural language and conversation replaces screen-based clicks, taps and form fills. And it’s not just B2C; this capability is also coming to a corporate office, offshore oil rig and hospital near you, too. Voice, facial or gesture access to buildings, desktop systems and other data is already being built into many core platforms. Before long, augmented and virtual reality will complement our meeting rooms, show rooms, labs and operating rooms in ways already being tested and prototyped.

Conversational AI: Here and Now

Just in case you’re tempted to think this conversational AI stuff is still too far down the hype cycle, enter Tim Cook with Apple’s latest announcement. The iPhone X embeds all these capabilities and more into a pocket-sized device costing less than half what you paid for that dual floppy PC 25 years ago. Think your customers may want to “facially authenticate” to their bank accounts, lab results or shopping cart purchases? Think your competition isn’t already working to take advantage of all this here-and-now AI?  You bet they are!

So, it turns out that what’s keeping these execs up at night is exactly what their customers, CEOs and shareholders want them losing sleep over:

  • These new AI capabilities are the biggest UX game-changer in decades.
  • It’s all about customer interaction, user experience and extending the brand.
  • If you aren’t already started you’re behind.

 *Gartner, Forecast Snapshot: VPA-Enabled Wireless Speakers, Worldwide, 2016-2021, Published: 11 August 2017 ID: G00333070, Analyst(s): Werner Goertz, Ranjit Atwal.

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