As South African customers increasingly avoid call centres and emails in favour of using more immediate digital communication channels, local companies – especially in the retail and services sector – will need to look toward intelligent chatbots to set them apart from the competition, writes Craig Nel, cloud platform leader: mobile, BOTs and AI at Oracle Middle East, Africa and Turkey.
From being little more than the stuff of science fiction movies from not so long ago, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) has progressed at a rapid rate. The one area where its presence is being felt is through the number of organisations turning to chatbots to provide individuals with instant access to customer service – a trend that is set to accelerate in 2018.
A key driver for this technology has been smartphone adoption, with today’s customers increasingly preferring digital channels and a plethora of instant messaging (IM) applications as their primary means of communication. People are adopting IM at a faster rate than social networks, with over 4.1-billion users worldwide using apps, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat and Slack.
Harnessing the mobile revolution
Research shows that almost every South African now has a mobile device; the vast majority are active on their phones first thing in the morning; and half check social media frequently throughout the day – even while standing in line at stores. This makes mobile devices the most pervasive platform for marketing and communication available.
The need for familiarity of channels means that the preference for digital conversation has expanded beyond users’ personal lives, and they now want to be able to instantly communicate with companies too – whether these are brands that they buy (or plan to buy) from, or the very organisations that they work for.
This growing demand for instant communication is driving innovation in chatbots that are powered by artificial intelligence to help companies automate these conversations in scale through these channels.
According to Research and Markets, the chatbot market is set to reach a revenue of $3,1-billion by 2021, and South Africa is perfectly poised to capture a significant portion of this market potential. While actual purchases are still predominantly made in physical stores, 76% of local consumers are using their mobile devices to get more information from online sources to help make a purchase decision, even while in store.
Banking on chatbots
Companies from across a range of industries will be impacted by the intelligent chatbots in a similar way to the rise of mobile devices; business to consumer use cases for chatbots are being seen in retail, financial services, travel and hospitality and even in utilities, for service-related and transactional conversations.
With only a few major players in the local market, this should be of significant interest to South African banks wanting to attract and retain new and existing customers. When used successfully, a customer can be a ‘friend’ of their bank and converse like they would with a fellow human and become more invested in the relationship than when merely using a mobile banking app.
In a country like South Africa, with its many cultures and languages, this is where technologies such as AI, natural language processing and machine learning come to the fore.
Switching from one financial institution to another is becoming easier, and as such only those banks that pay attention to overall customer satisfaction will come out on top. One way of doing this will be through using intelligent chatbots that better understand the customer’s needs, desires and requirements.
In parallel, we are seeing use cases for employees in human resources with on-boarding, talent acquisition, customer relationship management (CRM) for sales teams, approvals, time cards, and leave management for enterprise resource planning (ERP). Anyone who knows how to use Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Slack will be able to interact with a well-build chatbot without having to learn anything new.
What’s the future of chatbots?
We are still at the early stage of intelligent chatbots; while these services need to be authentic and not try to pretend to be human, we are continually improving algorithms around user sentiment, image analysis, language translation, self-learning and behavioural analysis, to both simplify bot development and enhance user experience.
In South Africa, we will soon see chatbots that will add significant value related to ease of use for healthcare and education amongst many others. MomConnect, a unique chatbot launched by the Praekelt Foundation at last year’s International AIDS conference in Durban has the ability to revolutionise the healthcare system.
We believe bots will be everywhere, and conversational user interfaces (UI) will be the primary interface of interaction. There will be a convergence of bots and immersive UI (augmented reality and virtual reality) with devices that are yet to be imagined but will be used via a conversational UI to interact with bots.
Today, chatbots typically have a human agent integration component for handling urgent or time sensitive cases. With the use of AI robotic process automation (RPA), going forward, bots can apply sentiment analysis while the integrated RPA technology will allow for the ability to initiate the processes that are needed to resolve the issue without any human intervention.