A Conversational AI Primer

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a senior level leader at one of our clients, a global consumer goods company, to talk about how we might help them with Conversational AI. Over the course of our discussion she continuously stressed three distinct themes 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 was, “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, only this time with a telecom services client. When it happened yet again, now 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.  

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 2 BILLION people will use Conversational AI to interact with VPAs, VCAs and other AI enabled smartphones and connected devices on a regular basis.(1)” 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 2 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, in the voice-enabled marketplace you better be two things:

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

Vanity URLs will be as pointless as YellowPages 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 virtual 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.

Voice Enabled “Magic Mirror”

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 is coming to a corporate office, offshore 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.

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(2) 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 game UX changer in decades.
  • It’s all about customer interaction, user experience and extending the brand. 
  • If you are not already started you’re behind.

Want to have a conversation about Conversational AI? I’d love to hear your feedback on this post or connect to talk further.


(1)Forecast Snapshot: VPA-Enabled Wireless Speakers, Worldwide, 2016-2021, Gartner, August 11, 2017

(2)Facial recognition is here. The iPhone X is just the beginning, The Guardian, September 13, 2017