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Beyond the Buzzwords: How to Use Tomorrow's Tech Today

Take it step by stepIt seems we’re always hearing about how some new technology is going to “change everything.” Often, this can feel disconnected from our reality—meaningless buzzwords that have no impact on the problems we’re trying to solve here and now.

One of the challenges in talking about artificial intelligence (AI) is that it can sound so futuristic as to be useless to us today. With everyone throwing around buzzwords like AI and chatbot with impunity, it’s difficult to know what is real and truly relevant to your business. But what do these popular terms actually mean?

Artificial intelligence: Three types of AI are widely recognized in the tech community: narrow, general and super.

  1. Artificial narrow intelligence (ANI) refers to a computer’s ability to perform a specific task extremely well, such as crawling a webpage or playing chess.
  2. Artificial general intelligence (AGI) is when a computer program can perform any intellectual task that a human could.
  3. Artificial super intelligence (ASI) is an AI that surpasses human intellect.

Today, most experts would agree that ANI (also called narrow AI) is still maturing, AGI is several more years away from being perfected, and ASI is even further off.

Chatbot: A bot is a piece of software designed to perform a single task, such as finding answers to questions or automating transactions. A chatbot, an example of this kind of software, interacts with humans through conversations.

Determining What’s Relevant

Definitions aside, an important question remains: How are these innovations relevant to the business problems you are trying to solve every day? While super-advanced AIs still live in the realm of science fiction, other applications of this technology can be useful to us today. For example, there are already more than 100,000 chatbots on Facebook Messenger, and the social messaging platform recently updated its design to make these conversational interfaces easier to find and interact with.

Here are three steps for leveraging this innovative tech today, while also planning for the future.

TechnologyStep 1: Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. It can seem a bit overwhelming to try to make sense of everything AI technology can do. Instead, start with defining the unique issues you’re facing and then work up to a solution. First, define the biggest obstacles that keep you from providing an exceptional experience for every customer. Maybe it’s disconnected systems, staffing constraints or the inability to serve customers on emerging channels.

Once your obstacles are defined, rank them by business impact. In other words, which issue causes the most pain? Pain could take the form of lost revenue, bad press from recalls, customer frustration or agent turnover.

Now for the real challenge: get key decision makers to align on the priority list. One way to make this process easier is to quantify each pain with a unified metric, such as dollars, to get a real apples-to-apples comparison. The dollar amount could pertain to revenue at risk because of poor customer experience, revenue lost due to customer attrition, or opportunity costs.

With your priorities ranked from the most painful and expensive to the least, you’re ready to consider solutions.

AIStep 2: Look for “narrow intelligence.” Artificial narrow intelligence, or narrow AI, is a type of software that can do one specific task more efficiently than a human can. Specificity is the key to success with today’s AI options. Companies should be wary of AI products that claim broad capabilities—it’s not that they can’t do what they say they can do, it’s that all those capabilities (and what they could mean for your business) could take years to sort through.

Instead, look for applications of narrow intelligence that can solve problems for you now, as well as later. Such an approach has the added benefit of drastically shortening the “time to productivity,” allowing you to derive value from the technology more quickly than a larger, more involved project.

However, embracing narrow AI doesn’t mean that only simple tasks can be automated. Sets of narrow AIs, each designed to complete their own specific functions, can work together to perform more complex tasks, like individual cogs in a machine. This aspect of narrow AI is what allows the technological innovation to be accessible and useful today.

For example, say a customer uses a messaging app to start a chat with your brand. She wants to know when her order will be delivered, and multiple bots will be involved to formulate an answer: one to query her purchase history and find the order she’s referring to, one to reference the appropriate tracking code, and one to assemble this information into a friendly, conversational response: “Your order is scheduled to be delivered this Friday.” Each bot has its special function, and they can work together to power a variety of useful customer interactions.

kaizenStep 3: Start small; plan big. The beauty of innovation is that it doesn’t have to take the form of earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting quantum leaps. The classic Japanese innovation principle of kaizen relies on small, continuous improvements that add up to big changes over a long period of time.

In a similar way, the best way to leverage this new breed of intelligent tech is to tackle one or two of the challenges on the priority list you developed in Step 1. If any one problem seems too overwhelming, break it into phases. For example, say that one of your top challenges is that your contact center doesn’t have enough staff to support customers after hours, causing dissatisfaction and lost revenue.

Phase 1 could be a relatively simple chatbot that can answer customers’ top 10-15 most frequently asked questions, and is only active after your human staff leaves for the day. Phase 2 could be a more robust customer self-service bot that can resolve a wider variety of issues and is active at all hours, providing coverage when your contact center agents aren’t available and offloading their most repetitive tasks during the workday.

Not only does the “start small” approach deliver returns and improvements more quickly, it lays the groundwork for future expansion as the technology becomes more sophisticated. Another benefit is learning: Not only will your bots learn from each interaction and become better at their tasks, so too will your organization learn how your customers are using the technology to interact. As you move forward, this valuable insight will inform future investments.

Looking Toward the Future

buzzwordsSpeaking of that, as you become more comfortable and well-versed in applying narrow AI to solve today’s challenges, you can begin to turn your attention to tomorrow. Here are some questions to consider in your future planning:

  • How are your customers’ needs and preferences changing?
  • What other challenges might you be called on to solve in six months, a year, five years?
  • In what other ways could you use innovations like AI to deliver business value?

For example, younger consumers, who are more comfortable with technology, are beginning to wield more buying power. They want to solve even complex issues as easily as sending a text or Facebook message, as effortlessly as asking Siri or Alexa. According to Gartner, by 2020, customers will manage 85% of their relationships with companies with zero human interaction—and 2020 is not that far off. But consider how AI innovations could help you meet the challenge, driving ever more sophisticated chatbots that can provide the interactions and answers your customers want via SMS, messaging apps and voice-based virtual assistants.

Yes, it’s true: AI brings to mind science fiction, and as business buzzwords go, often triggers a mix of skepticism and apprehension. Although chatbots are still in their early years, they’re maturing quickly—and by tasking them with a narrowly defined set of functions, companies can leverage them to solve today’s problems, while laying the groundwork for tomorrow.


Natalie Adler SkarzynskiNatalie Adler Skarzynski manages digital marketing at Astute Solutions, a leading provider of consumer engagement solutions. Throughout her career, she has focused on digital strategies to help software companies engage with customers and drive results.