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Perspective

Adding Human Intelligence
Be careful before you remove the human from the consumer engagement equation 

Subrahmanyam KVJ

“Machines are taking over the world” is a common refrain these days. The reasons are not hard to see – there’s rapid mechanisation in traditional industries, and software is increasingly entering newer industries and dramatically lowering entry barriers. However, that’s only one side of the coin. Emerging digital technologies, more specifically Artificial Intelligence (AI) is bringing about a wide range of business benefits. AI has gone from being an arcane topic, limited to research discussions, to something that the average consumer increasingly identifies with, thanks to Alexa, Siri, Facebook and so on. And that’s driving an increasing usage of AI in customer experience. But, do consumers want to engage purely with the machine? Are humans so fed up of fellow humans that they are ready to embrace the machine for all their engagement when it comes to large corporations?

The answer, from our global survey of 10,000 consumers, is no. We found that consumers increasingly want a combination: 55% consumers globally (and 79% in India) would prefer to have interactions enabled by a mix of AI and humans. While in some instances consumers prefer AI-only interactions, and human-only interactions in some others, we found that, overall people favour a combination of both, irrespective of the financial and emotional value they associate with the products and services.

AI, that’s human-like

Consumers are increasingly clear on what they expect from their interactions with AI-enabled systems, more so in India. Over 84% of consumers in India want AI to have human-like qualities. What are these? These include a human-like voice; intellect; ability to understand human emotions and respond; ability to provide greater empathy, and human-like behaviour and personality. Not just that, unlike the rest of the world where one in two consumers said they do not want AI to have human-like appearance, in India, nearly four in five consumers are actually okay with AI having a human-like appearance.

But, what should organisations focus on to make their AI-enabled interactions human-like? We found that they bring some very tangible advantages. An overwhelming number of Indian consumers (86%) said they will have greater trust in the company and have a greater propensity to spend with the company if their interactions with the organisation were enabled by AI that is more human-like in its design. And we are already beginning to see some early examples of companies understanding this sentiment.

Google recently announced the public beta of its personal assistant service Duplex. The service essentially can set up appointments on your behalf with service providers such as salons, or restaurants. There was a fair amount of debate on whether Duplex should identify itself as a machine, given the very natural human-like pauses that it took. By the time the public beta was launched, Google took a decision to have Duplex announce that it was an automated assistant at the start. And transparency by design is exactly what consumers are looking for. Over three in four Indian consumers (77%) wanted to be made aware when they were having AI-enabled interactions. This was the highest across 10 countries with the global average being 66%

Talking of Google Duplex and digital assistants, we found that four in five consumers in India would be comfortable in delegating tasks to such assistants. However, such assistants raise important questions for organisations and customer experience executives. What does the rise of such alter egos mean for the future of customer to brand interactions? Will organisations work towards finding meaningful ways to engage with a consumer’s digital agent, once the consumer is out of the equation? What strategies will brands employ to appeal to such digital alter egos? How will an organisation’s digital agent interact with a consumer’s digital agent? In the long run, how will brands sustain the emotional link with the end-consumer as direct interactions reduce?

The enterprise consumer gap

Given the number of open questions, one would expect organisations and customer experience executives to quickly prioritise AI-enabled interactions. However, that doesn’t quite appear to be the case. More worryingly, organisations appear to be getting their priorities wrong. Among the top five priorities for Indian executives when it comes to implementing AI-enabled interactions, impact on customer experience comes last! They are more concerned with availability of data, ROI, cost of implementation, and impact on operational efficiency. There is also a significant disconnect in how organisations anticipate customer expectations. While over three in four Indian consumers want to be made aware when they are having AI-enabled interactions, executives in Indian firms expect it to be only one in three consumers.

So, how should organisations augment their customer experience in a world of AI-enabled interactions? The solutions are quite straightforward to hear but are far more challenging to implement. Organisations need to ensure that consumer concerns form the basis for their AI initiatives, not RoI or cost. Similarly, they need to ensure that they scale up their interactions rather than keeping them confined in small deployments. And finally, organisations need to ensure that they bake in transparency by design into their AI initiatives.

Consumers are increasingly aware and satisfied by AI-enabled experiences, but they expect the human presence as critical to enabling these interactions across consumer touchpoints and products and services. Organisations now need to tap into evolving consumer expectations and make for more customised and personalised customer interactions, without losing the human empathy and connection in the process. By doing so, they can ensure that the advent of AI doesn’t mean human intelligence takes a back-seat; it just makes humans all-the-more critical in building world-class experiences.

 The author writes about technology, future of business, innovation, strategy and tweets at @SuB8u

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