Ignore the hype machine — It’s back to basics with bots

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I occasionally meet with a company that worries they’re not ready for bots. They think of bots as an emerging technology fraught with complexity. In some cases, they worry they don’t have the skillset internally to deploy and get ROI out of the technology. Others want the technology to “mature” a bit more before they place a bet.

If you really stop to think about it, it’s a ridiculous question: “are we ready for bots?”

Do you have customers and employees? Do they use computers and smartphones? Does your business depend on IT? If you said yes to those three questions, then you’re probably bot-ready.

If you stop thinking about bots the way the tech industry talks about them, or how AI is often depicted in movies, you’ll find that you have everything you need to be successful in today’s world and not some far -off tech utopia.

It’s not just about tech, it’s about experience

The tech industry would have you think that bots are fundamentally changing the way we interact with the Web. Some argue that bots mark the end of the era of mobile apps. I argue that your business shouldn’t care about what bots mean to the tech world. Focus on what they mean for your customer’s experience with your brand.

It’s common sense, really. Your time should be spent on your core business, not the trends in the technology industry. Bots are simply a more natural and authentic way to connect with your customers, employees and various other stakeholders. It’s a better customer experience — whether for making a purchase or getting support.

Temkin Group’s 2016 study said moderate improvement to customer experiences generate an average revenue increase of $ 823 million over three years for a company with $ 1 billion in annual revenues. They also found that emotion was the most influential factor in the design of a customer experience.

Think about that for a second — according to the Harvard Business Review, emotion is the new battleground for customer loyalty and repeat purchases. You can try to build emotion into your website, or maybe your shopping cart can use a heavy dose of empathic design. But the best way to connect with consumers is through conversation. If the experience isn’t conversational, you can’t come close to delivering an emotionally resonant customer experience. For this reason, the bot delivery medium is the ultimate interface for human emotion whether it’s text or voice.

If you already obsess over your brand experience and connecting with your customers, then you’re ready for bots. With the right “brains” behind the scenes powering bots, they’re the ideal delivery mechanism for the experience you’ve worked so hard to create in an authentic yet approachable manner.

Endpoints and paradigm shifts

Thirty years ago customer interactions primarily happened in-store and on the phone. Twenty years ago we shifted towards email. Ten years ago we shifted towards live chat. Today, we’re using bots to connect with customers on any messaging platform everywhere.

IRL, phone, email, chat, bots––they’re all just delivering an experience at different endpoints. While the tech world perpetually bemoans “digital transformation” failures, I remain impressed at how even the most non-technical businesses have evolved as customers demanded new forms of engagement at new endpoints.

Most businesses that last the test of time do a good job of meeting their customers needs, especially as they change. Every business cares deeply about meeting those customer needs where they are. If nothing else, that’s the fundamental function of a business.

The tech industry wants you to believe these are paradigm shifts, no matter how big or small. Software may be eating the world, but the fundamentals of your business have not changed. The tech industry’s paradigm shift is often just a new endpoint that presents an opportunity to connect with and serve your customers. Used responsibly, bots are a remarkable tool to help you do just that.

Has it already happened?

Customers already made the leap to messaging. According to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report, chat and social media are already the top channel for customer support among Gen Y. Meeker’s report also points out that over 60 million businesses have active accounts on WeChat and Facebook, showing that businesses are making the move now, as well.

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Are you ready for bots? If you’re just worried about buying the latest technology, maybe not. But if your goal is to better connect with your customers and grow your business, and you’ve got the foundation in place, then you’re as ready as you’ll ever be. Is there ever a good reason to hold off when your customers are waiting for you?

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Don’t Forget the Basics in Digital Transformation

Why do managers so often lose sight of the basics with respect to digital business?

One reason: It’s easy to forget the essentials in an area that changes so quickly and that is so focused on the latest and greatest. Computing power, storage capacity, and networking speeds double every 9 to 18 months, creating new tools and platforms for doing business. The ride-sharing platform, Uber, and the enterprise social media platform, Slack, are both only eight years old, yet they both have had a significant impact on how work gets done. As recently as 2012, companies were asking whether Facebook could successfully transition to mobile environments. Today, nearly 80% of overall platform use — and more to the point, 70% of Facebook revenues — comes from mobile platforms, and many companies are now adopting the mantra “mobile first” when it comes to digital business.

Second, managers forget the fundamentals because the responsibility for digital business is often moving elsewhere in the organization. Responsibilities that were once the purview of the chief information officer or the chief digital officer are increasingly coming under the auspices of the chief marketing officer or the chief human relations officer. These executives are often new to the world of digital business, having little experience managing in a digital environment. So while some with years of experience may take these things for granted, many of the new executives currently leading digital initiatives may not.

What fundamentals are digital leaders most at risk of missing? Although by no means an extensive list, there are three particular business basics that I often see managers forget:

  1. When it comes to digital transformation, don’t forget the business case. Often, managers become so focused on the technological aspects of digital business that they forget about why they are engaged in these efforts to begin with — to improve the way their company does business. Digital transformation is only about technology in part; it is also, and more importantly, about using new technology to enable novel or more effective business strategies. Managers often believe that they need to be in mobile, analytics, AI, or other emerging technologies without being able to clearly articulate why they need to invest in these technologies — or what business purpose they could serve.

    It bears repeating: When beginning a digital business initiative, be sure you know why you are beginning it and what your business goals are.
  2. Top management support is key for success. Managers who aren’t directly involved in technology functions often assume that they are not “digital” managers. But as companies begin to engage more heavily in digital business, all managers must become digital managers. Whether directly involved in implementing the technology or not, managers must understand the business case for digital initiatives and what other aspects of the organization need to be aligned to accomplish those goals. When executives simply delegate responsibility for digital business to the technologists, it is a recipe for near-certain failure. Not only does top management involvement in and direct support for digital business initiatives signal to the company that these initiatives are important, it can allow the other aspects of the organization to become aligned with these goals.

    For the many top managers who don’t believe they have the technological knowledge to effectively lead or support digital initiatives, it’s important to realize that it’s much easier to teach executives what they need to know about digital business than it is to equip technologists with the managerial experience and strategic insight they would need to lead digital business efforts effectively.
  3. Enable and empower your employees to succeed. Even with strong top management support, digital business initiatives cannot be successful simply because they have a mandate from the top. If you just expect employees to engage in new digital business processes because your company adopts a new digital platform, you’re in for disappointment, because they won’t. Employees typically don’t have the time or the know-how to figure out new ways to work on the fly and in the context of their existing job responsibilities. Managers must give employees opportunities to succeed in digital initiatives.

    These opportunities can come in a number of forms. First, employees should be provided with adequate training to learn to engage the technology and digital processes effectively. Training need not take the form of traditional classes; it may simply mean ensuring that adequate resources are available online to help them learn (and ensuring that employees are aware of them). Alternatively, it may mean that employees are moved within the organization more frequently so that they can learn other ways of doing things from coworkers.

    Second, employees must be given time and space to adapt. Employees are very good at sticking with established ways of doing things, because they are safe and familiar. New ways of working requires spare time and cognitive resources to learn the new system.

While these simple lessons aren’t new, and certainly aren’t enough for successful digital transformation on their own, they bear repeating — because no digital business initiatives will be entirely successful without them.


MIT Sloan Management Review