Automation, AI and the Future of Communications
The robots are taking over.
Whether you think advances in automation are fantastic news or the beginning of the end, there’s no denying they’re having a real effect on businesses today. What do these developments mean for businesses like yours? How can you take full advantage, whether you’re a new business or a well-established company?
AI and automation are already having a profound effect on business communications
While AI as a whole is developing at an incredible rate, I’ve found the recent progress with Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms particularly impressive. These technologies allow computers to understand conversations and their context, then use that data to produce meaningful content based on previously gathered information.
This is quickly spreading to audio as well, with text-to-voice coming a long way from the days of Microsoft Sam. Google’s ‘Tacotron 2’ can use context to work out what you’re really writing about (For example, it can tell the difference between ‘desert’ the verb or ‘desert’ the noun), and pronounce it correctly. The finished audio is arguably indistinguishable from a human reading (see if you can tell the difference). Within the next year, I’ll be surprised if we’re not seeing more people using software like this as a viable option to hiring professional voice-over specialists.
We’re also seeing more business communication being automated. For example, at Reply we help our clients automate their sales emails and follow-ups. Our next goal is to not just automate those first steps, but also the responses.
This is already happening in the customer support space, and chances are you’ve already had the pleasure of speaking to a bot. Often these will handle initial customer enquiries, then pass things over to a human when necessary.
As adoption and exposure increases, the psychological resistance to automated conversations is falling. I don’t mind speaking to a bot if it’s capable of answering my questions. In fact I feel better not bothering a human with my mundane question, and if they can’t help then it’ll be handed over to a human anyway. In the meantime, I don’t have to wait in a queue for hours. In 5-10 years, maybe less, half of business communications will be with robots. It’ll also be seamless enough the average user will either not notice or no longer care.
An interesting development is the move from traditional email into ‘messenger’ type communications. Already there are apps that’ll convert incoming emails into a clutter-free message format. As this trend for messenger style communications increase we’ll likely see stable players emerge and a uniform standard established.
So we can expect less emails, more direct conversations and more automation.
How to make the most of automation
How can businesses prepare for this automated future?
A first step is to make sure you’re where your customers are. This has always been good practice, but it’s essential for the future of communication. As your business grows, you need to make sure direct communication is easy for your customers, as well as keeping those conversations organized and optimized.
The second step is to implement automation where you see opportunities within your processes. You’re looking for conversations with your customers that happen regularly with little variation. For example, if your customer support team often deal with specific questions (‘How do I reset my password?’)maybe an AI bot can help handle them efficiently (in this case automatically sending a link to reset their password).
Rather than starting from scratch every time, setting up integrations with tools like Zapier will allow you to use the same automations for all your communication channels.
As a caveat, I encourage businesses to be transparent about their use of bots. In my experience users are more forgiving when they know they’re dealing with a bot, as long as they don’t feel like you’re trying to fool them.
New businesses can use automation to kickstart their communication
As a new business owner, there may not be a whole lot of communication going on yet. Your main objective at this stage should be to get more conversations started. The more chats you have with prospective or existing customers, the more revenue you’re going to make.
How can you engage better and faster with your audience?
The traditional solution would be to increase the size of your sales team. To be honest, this will also give you the highest conversion rate from leads to customers. However, it’s also challenging, as well as expensive. This makes automating your outreach with software like Reply the ideal solution. Sure, it may slightly reduce your conversion rate, but it’s much cheaper than a sales team and will lead to higher overall results.
Be aware there’s still a limit to what automation can do. It’s not enough to take your inbound leads and just start blasting them with offers and newsletters. You need to engage on a personal level, by sending personalized messages and actually talking with them. Sure, automate systems for handling initial inbound/outbound conversations, but you still need to apply the personal touch.
The benefit comes from not having to deal with the time-consuming, repetitive tasks that surround those processes, allowing you to spend time on personalization.
Don’t underestimate the difference these automated processes can make for small and solo businesses. I was speaking with a close friend who was using our automation software who’s a great programmer, but he isn’t a businessman. By automating his outeach he was able to focus on what he does best. Now his biggest problem is handling all the new business these processes have brought in.
Established businesses can manage and optimize their communication.
What about more established businesses? Your problem isn’t going to be starting conversations with prospective customers. Rather you have to deal with ongoing conversations with existing customers. As your business grows, you’ll have more conversations happening on social media, over the phone or by sms. Remember, many of these channels, were designed first and foremost for personal use. That makes them convenient for your users, but not so much for your business.
Your goal should be controlling and monitoring the conversations on these messaging channels. Once your company reaches a certain size it’s likely you’ll need to hire someone to keep on top of this. Ideally you’ll unify these channels where possible. You don’t want them going through personal accounts, otherwise when your social media guy goes on holiday you could be in trouble.
This also allows you to monitor your response times and see how long your staff are taking to answer questions. After all, you want to make sure your customers aren’t waiting a week for a response.
For your support staff, there are two ways bots can help right now. The first is by sending automatic replies to customer queries, based on identified patterns in the query. Then, if the bot isn’t able to help, it can seamlessly connect the customer to a member of your support team.
The second way is by acting as a smart assistant for your support staff. Rather than taking the place of a human, bots are capable of analyzing the customer’s query and can then suggest likely answers for your team to review.
At a higher level, AI can also handle some of the more basic but time-consuming tasks. Software like Ahoy.ai can intelligently arrange and book meetings, something that traditionally takes weeks of frustrated emails and missed calls.
The low cost of entry means small businesses can take advantage of automation
Despite what you may have heard, automation doesn’t have to be expensive.
Many automation providers scale the cost of their solution based on usage, which means it can be very cheap for those just starting out. Typically you can implement basic automation software from $17/mo, and for anywhere between $50-$100/mo you could have a smart, effective automation system in place.
Still on the fence? Count how many hours your team spend answering emails each day.
It’s horrifying, right?
All that time spent going through inboxes, reading emails, and composing replies. If automation can reduce that by just 5%, then it’s already a huge benefit. And as AI continues improving, so will the amount of time saved.
These systems will soon be able to build and optimize themselves over time, learning from your sales team and picking up on contextual rules. In turn they’ll improve their own understanding and ability to compose readable answers from a growing knowledge base.
If this all sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s important to realize this is already happening. Big companies are producing and implementing their own solutions. But in the very near future, generic solutions will be available off the shelf, ready for use by companies of all sizes.
The future of automated communication
In the not so distant future bots will be commonplace on both sides of the conversation, for sales and customers.
Especially in Business to Business communication, we’ll see an increase in Bot to Bot conversations, with customers making use of smart assistants. We’re already seeing AI automate sales processes, but soon they’ll effectively be able to manage the buying process as well. Arguably this is already happening at the high level of the stock exchange, where algorithms crunch the numbers and works out if now is the right time to buy or sell.
Now imagine an AI making buying decisions for your company, based on your budget and the information it’s able to source. It would then contact the seller’s representative, whether that’s a human or another bot, to arrange the deal.
Think about how you pick a new piece of software. Typically you’ll Google what options are out there. You’ll probably check out the relevant conversations on social media. Maybe you’ll read some reviews then try out trial versions of the top choices. It’s a time consuming and imperfect process where you may easily miss out on better solutions.
Now, there’s no reason an AI can’t carry out a majority of those tasks, from the initial search right through to creating trial accounts for you and credentials for your team.
We’re rapidly approaching the time when the machines can start teaching themselves, In a year or two, AI will be able to solve our problems and carry out our typical tasks better than we can.
But rather than putting all humans out of work, I firmly believe it’ll allow us to reach our full potential, taking away the boring grind of daily tasks and letting us focus on creative solutions and possibilities.