Conversational AI is changing how consumers interact with businesses; it is imperative to brand differentiation, making marketing’s role more critical than ever. The pace of change is rapid, requiring companies to move faster than ever before to remain competitive.

Conversational AI: CX before IT

For many companies, survival hinges on the ability to integrate conversational AI into their business strategy. No longer just a means to improve the customer experience, conversational AI’s touchless, screenless interfaces can also help differentiate products and services—putting marketing at the forefront of conversational AI initiatives.

Creating a better customer experience means focusing on experience before IT. Talk to your customers through focus groups or surveys, and observe how they engage with the functions where you are considering conversational AI.

  • Is the proposed solution something your customers prefer?
  • Is there a customer segment that definitively knows what it wants?
  • What devices are your customers currently using and which ones would they like to use? Here, you should anticipate segmentation as some customers will use Alexa, others Google, with still others using a combination.
  • How do you design for experience instead of simply replicating what you’re already doing for new interfaces?

Once you’ve answered these questions, build a journey map, test different scenarios, and go back to your customers to confirm your approach. Only then is it time to evaluate technologies. Possibilities abound, including voice solutions, messaging channels, website chats or chats across mobile apps or devices.

Collaboration between Marketing and IT is a must

Truly understanding what your customers want and how to create the best experience will significantly improve the success of conversational AI initiatives and enable marketing to collaborate with IT. Together, marketing and IT can determine what technology to apply, which channels to use and which devices to focus on within those channels. In sharp contrast, we’ve seen that most failed conversational AI projects were IT-driven, built and implemented without first knowing if the solution was one customers wanted. These projects resulted in low adoption and negative customer feedback. The lesson learned? Just because you can put a voice interface on a process doesn’t mean you should.

A collaborative relationship between marketing and IT is critical to ensuring each side understands enough of the other to effectively develop successful conversational AI initiatives. If marketing fails to understand today’s capabilities and how the technology works at a conceptual level, their requirements will lead IT to over-engineer and over-design functionality that’s not yet possible, or they will err in the opposite direction and fail to take advantage of the capabilities that are possible.

At the same time, IT needs to know how marketing wants to use these technologies and what are the best practices to employ. Once IT understands marketing’s objectives, they can begin to think about the technologies that might be most effective, which vendors they can leverage, what skillsets they can tap internally and where they will need to fill gaps. It also enables them to link projects, enabling code, frameworks and best practices to build upon one another.

Leverage innovation partners to support strategy and roadmaps

Broadly speaking, conversational AI technologies are most frequently used during the sales process and to provide post-sale information and support. As conversational AI matures, the next step in the continuum is to enable complete transactions, which requires integrating with backend systems such as inventory, sales orders, invoicing and receivables. Leveraging external partners with relevant experience in design, implementation, journey mapping and building interfaces in multiple environments can accelerate your company’s ability to offer end-to-end conversational AI capabilities and increase competitive advantage. When looking for an innovation partner, ask these questions:

  • How many similar projects have they completed and what lessons did they learn?
  • How broad is their experience, not just across industries but across multiple channels?
  • Can they support your project end-to-end (including design, development and integration)?
  • What ongoing enhancements will they provide?

Plan for an omnichannel, multi-device and multi-modal future

To further complicate the marketer’s role in the world of AI is the rapid pace at which devices are becoming voice enabled. How do you prioritize conversational AI efforts? It’s important to keep a steady pulse on the customer base to understand which devices are driving interaction or desired interaction. You will ultimately need to cover the full spectrum of channels and devices, but it’s impossible to do so all at once. Prioritization requires a strategy and roadmap for introducing and evolving conversational AI across all engagements points, including up-and-coming AI capabilities such as biometrics. Plan big, but start small by investing for immediate success as well as long-term tangible benefits. Your roadmap should be highly focused to enable early successes that can evolve into bigger solutions over time and enable scalability. Cognizant’s Five Strategies to Catalyze Conversational AI offers additional guidance.

Relevant skill sets are scarce, so plan ahead

Since colleges have yet to develop curriculum around voice interfaces or design for conversational AI, marketers are changing and adapting traditional, core marketing skills such as design thinking, graphic design and copywriting and applying them differently to address conversational AI design and customer experience.

The same is true for IT organizations. Finding enough people with the depth of experience needed to keep pace with conversational AI needs is a challenge. Hiring and training internally is possible, but there will be less exposure to different types of projects and approaches as well as a lack of depth of experience. Leveraging an innovation partner can accelerate the learning curve, but these high-demand skills and people are in short supply, so marketing and IT need to think about how to staff a project long before implementation to avoid resource constraints.

Start yesterday

Conversational AI is changing fast and is imperative for brand differentiation. As these technologies spur new business models and market expansion, don’t be caught off guard. Marketers need a continuously evolving conversational brand strategy with customer experience at the center so they can keep up with how customers engage with conversational AI technologies and help influence overall business strategy.