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Re-Thinking Search: AI, Bots & Voice Will Change How Customers Make Purchase Decisions

The evolution of search

For many years, the only way to search for anything on the internet was to google it. Ok, of course, there have been other search engines, but the rules have generally been the same – you type something in, and if a brand doesn’t immediately pop up on the first page, they’re not doing their SEO correctly. People won’t visit their website, consumers won’t buy from them.

That model is set to change fundamentally in the next few years. Marketers have been busy working on “search” for the last 15 years, and companies around the world have invested millions in keyword buying and content creation in order to arrive on the first page of Google. However, this is actually a sub-optimal system that is bad for both companies and consumers.

Why? Let me explain.

When you search for something on Google, or even within a large e-commerce site such as Zalando or Amazon, what actually happens is that you get an overload of results. For example, if you want to buy a jacket, you get thousands of jackets broken down into more than 50 pages. This is simply overwhelming, and the reality is that very few of us ever really go beyond the second page. But what if that perfect jacket you’re looking for is buried deep in the fifth or sixth page?

Search is not working as it should today. Bots, however, are going to fundamentally change the way we search – and in fact, they already are.

Facebook, as you might expect, was one of the first companies to start with bots. They’ve started to allow brands to use small artificial intelligence engines to offer customer service through Facebook’s Messenger app.

One of the first European brands to take advantage of this was Dutch airline KLM. Through a plug-in on the KLM site, if you book a flight with them, the last thing that you’ll be asked is if you want to send your inflight documentation to Messenger. If you opt into that, you’ll get flight notifications, feedback and information via Messenger.

The rise of the smart speaker

In recent months, both Amazon and Google have launched and started to seriously promote, their smart speakers. These are personal assistants that use a voice interface, rather than text. Google’s Home and Amazon’s Echo both allow you to ‘ask’ them things, and most people use them for simple household requests – 82% ask their Echo device to play a specific song, 66% ask it to read the news and 85% ask it to set a timer.

What’s interesting, however, is that about one-third of the estimated 1.7 million US-based Amazon Echo owners are ordering products through it. This means you already have around 500,000 households in America buying products on a voice-controlled device that’s been created by Amazon. If this increases in popularity and effectiveness, it’s going to create a new world of search.

What I think is going to happen next, and very soon, is that these voice-controlled devices will be something we’ll have with us all the time, in the same way we all carry around mobile phones. In fact, they’ll probably be on our phone as well, in the same way that Siri is on Apple phones. And this, in turn, will hugely affect how customers engage with companies.

The significance and implications of this could be huge. If, for example, you need to book insurance for a vacation you might ask your bot, using your voice, to arrange it for you. More than likely, what will happen then is that your bot will go off and talk to a number of other bots from the insurance companies, and will come back with a recommendation of what is best for you as the consumer. This means that in the future, your company’s bots must help customers’ bots, or you risk your product not getting found, in exactly the same way as if your website is buried on page 6 of search engine results today.

It’s been interesting to watch the aggressive entrance of Google Home into the market, as you can definitely feel that they’re worried about what Amazon is doing. Google want to hang onto their current dominance in the future of search, but they now have to chase Amazon in order to do this and plow a lot of their investments in this direction. They have no choice but to re-invent search at a high pace as the current model is under pressure.

Completely automated searches

What Google is aiming to do is make the search process automated and based on locations, and therefore hyper-relevant for users. We’re still a way off this, but you can definitely see the first signs of what it will look like in some brands.

A good example is on the outdoor clothing company Northface’s website. It’s now switched to a much more customer-orientated search model that asks questions and tailors the results accordingly. You can type: “I need a rain jacket”. The question “What kind of activity do you want to do with it?” appears, followed by “What color?” Once the bot has gone through the questions, you then see the jackets that fit your criteria. Now, rather than your perfect jacket being buried beneath thousands of others in the search results, artificial intelligence now picks out what suits your needs best.

More information: List of intelligent digital advisor examples in varied industries

Disney is also another company that’s going to be using bots in this way in the near future. I recently watched a demonstration of their new system that allows you to talk to a bot (in the guise of Mickey Mouse, of course) who will help you to plan your holiday and book your activities.

These first applications of bots are optimizations of the search process. Looking ahead to the second phase in a few years, the process will be completely automated and based on your personal profile. You’ll have a personal servant – a bot – to go through the search process for you.

Faster than real-time customer service

The rise of digital technology and social media means that for many industries, real-time is quickly becoming the expected standard for customer service. If you take airlines, for example, their customer service departments can no longer boast that they deal with customer inquiries and complaints the same day or even within the hour, because to the customer in an airport, an hour feels like an eternity.

Customers want real-time service, but unfortunately, that simply isn’t possible on a large scale using people alone. Companies must now use their digital platforms to automate as much of the operational work as possible in order to free up customer service agents to add the invaluable human touch and an emotional connection that creates a level of customer loyalty.

The reality for businesses today, however, is that convenience is the new loyalty. Where customers used to fall in love with brands, they now love interfaces, and they will be loyal to the ones that make their life easy. And that is where bots and algorithm-based decision making come in. If a company can intelligently predict their customer’s needs, they can provide a truly outstanding level of service.

Customer engagement in the day after tomorrow

So what does the seismic shift in the customer journey created by bots really mean? Well, first of all, it is going to be fantastic for the customer, but for brands and companies, they are going to have to seriously think about the ways they are going to be found by customers and how they support those customers.

The key to success in the near future is going to be creating a customer experience that is personalized, frictionless and faster than real time. That will involve bringing together new customer interfaces, platforms, scalable communications and invisible technologies, and artificial intelligence will be what underpins it all.

No doubt the world’s leading companies are already adopting an “Artificial Intelligence first” strategy to achieve this, and it is going to be interesting to see what happens. For other businesses, however, I would urge them to consider how many resources they are investing in projects that affect today’s customers, projects for tomorrow and projects for customers in the day after tomorrow, because technology is moving so quickly that if you’re not thinking ahead you could find yourself left behind.


This article was originally featured on LinkedIn and is republished here with permission.
Image source: Steven van Belleghem

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Steven van Belleghem is an expert in customer focus in a digital world. He is a thought leader in the transformation of customer relations and the future of marketing, inspiring companies to become truly customer-centric organizations in this high-speed digital world. He is a popular speaker at home and abroad taking his audience on a journey to the world of modern customer relationships in a clever, enthusiastic and inspiring way.

Steven is also the author of four bestselling books. He became known for his first book, The Conversation Manager, which won the award for most innovative marketing book of 2010. Steven also wrote The Conversation Company, When Digital Becomes Human (best marketing book of 2015) and his most recent book, Customers The Day After Tomorrow. Over 100,000 copies of his books were sold and they are published in 7 languages. Customers the day after tomorrow is nominated for the award of best international business book.

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