A few weeks ago, I called my broadband provider about intermittent outages. The helpful customer support rep looked at my account and cheerfully told me that I could save money by switching to a different plan. A few minutes later, I had changed my plan to one that cost half as much and delivered comparable speeds. At first, I was happy. Then I was annoyed. Because I realized, in reality, no customer service team is proactively looking out for my well-being before I raise a problem.
AI and the New Age of Customer Advocacy
AI and the new age of customer advocacy are when AI can treat every customer like royalty just as they expected. But, unfortunately, proactively advocating on behalf of customers until now has been expensive and not easy to scale due to the reliance on humans.
In addition, it was easier to triage problems because, frankly, in the short turn companies earned higher revenues from ignorant customers. Now the customers know everything, and they expect to be treated like royalty. Therefore, companies must change their core approach to customer experience and support. Modern artificial intelligence will drive that change.
Customers already have AI-powered options with adversarial bill challenging solutions.
Arguing with your customers is bad business — let alone arguing with their external AI advocates.
Delighting customers by demonstrating you really put them first with proactive actions and personalized care is the best way to build long-term customer value. The only way to do this effectively and at scale is to leverage AI to make customer advocacy a core internal value and competency. In the past, businesses made the excuse that proactively communicating business policies with customers was not scalable.
AI removes that fig leaf by making personalized customer advocacy economical, inevitable and desirable at zero marginal cost. This tectonic shift will open up many new business models and put many older business models in the graveyard. Here’s what this new reality might look like.
AI Makes Cognitive Tasks Free — That Changes Everything.
The radical change that AI brings to business transactions is making a previously expensive resource – cognitive function – nearly free.
As outlined in the book “Prediction Machines” by three brilliant economists from the University of Toronto, the superpower of AI is making predictions free.
An AI today can do a fine job selecting clothing to suit your tastes, based on past purchases and anonymized purchases of others who share your likes and dislikes. In addition, there are a growing number of AI-driven personal shopping assistants such as “The Yes” and Beyond, which pairs stylists with customer opinions and applies AI to create ever-better recommendations.
Conversational AI powers retail chatbots that guide customers to more intelligent choices. In addition, the cost of serving one customer or 1 million customers is nearly identical, so the marginal cost of each new interaction is zero.
When what was formerly expensive becomes free, this forces major economic disruptions and realigns market power in surprising ways.
Think of what happened when the smartphone absorbed the GPS, the camera and the radio — or when detailed maps and traffic data became freely available at zero cost with Google Maps. These shifts to free or near-free disrupted legacy businesses and created new opportunities, like ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft and crowdsource traffic mapping company Waze.
Smart AI Will Perform Sophisticated Advocacy
A smart AI today could easily book a flight based on your ranked preferences of stops, airport choice, distance from destination, price and time of departure or arrival.
Your AI travel agent knows.
In the very near future, an AI travel agent would know that you like to go to Hawaii and preferred Maui departing on Thursday and returning Sunday evening. Your AI travel agent would alert you when flights meet your financial criteria of dropping below $500 RT and pre-book a room at a hotel near your favorite beach. (If this sounds like your old human travel agent, that’s because it basically is.)
Your AI personal concierge
An AI could serve as a personal concierge, alerting you to concerts you might like in your area or to books due to be published that suit your tastes.
Think about this:
Taking the scenario one step further, an AI might save you from a bad decision. For example, after checking past prices of flights to Hawaii and booking trends at nearby hotels, then negotiating with a hotel AI on a special room rate, the AI might say, “Wait, don’t book that flight. There is likely to be another flight sale this month, and your favorite hotel is booked for the weekend you are thinking about, so why not wait for the next sale? I already have a triple-upgrade to your favorite room.”
Foundations of AI as Consumer Advocate and Partner are Already Taking Shape
In the case of my Internet provider, an AI can be tasked with periodically reviewing what you are paying, what you are consuming, and going out to seek the best offers, negotiating on your behalf.
Human-powered analogies of this are already taking shape. Trim, BillShark, and TrueBill all offer bill negotiation services for cable, phone, and many other types of bills that rely on a smarter data backend to assist human experts. These negotiation services are starting to build a repository of data for training AI systems.
The data will be not just on pricing but on how to negotiate. Trim, for example, also uses smart AI and crowdsourcing to proactively request a bill credit for when a subscriber’s Internet goes down, even if they don’t notice it or request a refund themselves.
Entrepreneurs are applying basic AI to allow people to tackle more complicated tasks quickly and easily.
Several startups can advocate for consumers by disputing parking tickets or filing small court claims across many states. These, however, are adversarial relationships that can do real damage to the relation.
Why Customer Advocacy AI is Inevitable
Because the consumer’s AI will be talking to the merchant’s AI, then there is no need for standardized products or pricing.
In this era, we finally realize mass personalization of retail and consumer services, powered preferences illuminated through the smart use of AI. At the same time, this consumer advocate AI could supplant many of the more cumbersome, adversarial unpleasant interactions between customers and brands they use.
At the highest level, like my friendly cable company customer service rep, the AI will act internally as the advocate and voice of the customer at the individualized level.
By making customer-centricity truly programmatic and creating algorithms specifically for this task, companies will elevate customer advocacy from a second-tier program to one that informs business strategy. As a result, the business strategy will drive product development and design with constantly updated feedback based on real behaviors and interactions.
At the same time, the companies must optimize their products and support to allow customers to choose the external AI (should they so desire). Companies can empower that form of interaction via APIs and other ways of conversations between customer AI and internal support AI.
How to Survive and Thrive in the Era of AI Customer Advocacy
Envisioning a future where AI talks to AI allows our personal advocates to constantly scan the horizon to look out for our well-being. This type of AI customer advocacy will be negotiating on our behalf with superior knowledge and lead to some wholesale changes in business models and customer engagement mechanisms.
The first part of the old world to go will be tedious, time-intensive and unpleasant tasks.
Some of the tasks we will not miss will be running through lengthy sign-up processes or haggling on prices or promotional plans. Next, we will offload cognitively intensive but narrowly focused tasks that are heavily dependent on past tastes or indicated preferences. These tasks include such things as shopping for clothes, planning a trip, or finding the best doctor or dentist in our area. This AI capability can either come as a service paid for by the customer or as one provided for the customer by the company.
For businesses, dealing with this fully empowered consumer AI will be challenging.
For the first time, the consumer may have significantly better information than the business selling the service or product. Adding AI to this mix, as well, gives the consumer cognitive superpowers.
An AI can easily check across millions of travel permutations on any number of parameters. The AI travel helps will include flights, hotels, ticket availability for sporting events, special restaurant dinners, camping permits to national parks.
Your personal, desired conditions found and coordinated by AI
Your AI will be able to find the right mixture of desirable conditions that fits with stated or implicit preferences while fitting into work and family schedules. This has not been possible yet because the AIs were not advanced enough and could not readily talk to each other, let alone negotiate complex transactions.
All situations can change as the cost of AI drops further and the capabilities improve — just as our smartphones consumed multiple industry categories, including cameras, recorders, radios, newspapers and GPS systems.
Tremendous business advantages wait in AI for those who dare to dream
Just as Amazon and Netflix saw over the horizon to futures that were not yet real, businesses that can imagine a world where their inventory systems, CRM, and pricing systems can collaborate with customers’ AI will enjoy a tremendous advantage.
Monetize your future with AI
How to monetize that future remains unclear, but we can make some educated guesses based on the directions we see AI systems heading in retail, travel and media.
Delivering customer-centric goods and services that are truly personalized will command a premium. This is already true today in the bespoke world. In the future, it will be true for every consumer that has an AI on their side.
Image Credit: kampus production; pexels; thank you!
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