Artificial Intelligence has been prominent in tech news recently, and was a hot topic at SXSW.

The technology has massive potential for use in customer communication, yet will it ever be able to completely replace the need for a human element?

Facebook has already launched itself into the AI arena by introducing chatbots to its messenger app.

Facebook Messenger users will now be able to chat to select partners and check on the status of their orders, receiving replies from AI, rather than an actual customer service agent. 

The question is, is this a feasible solution for the majority of brands at the moment?

And what will customers think of talking to a machine, rather than a person? 

Saving businesses time and money

Automating some aspects of customer communication could save businesses time, and eventually, money.

For example, a system could allocate incoming messages into the correct categories, and identify and respond to those with simple enquiries such as “where is your nearest store to Wimbledon?” or “do you have that dress in blue?”

At present, AI isn’t sufficiently advanced to deal with some aspects of humanity.

Three major things that machines lack are empathy, imagination and, as Facebook’s own researchers pointed out, the ability to learn on their own initiative.

The importance of empathy in communication

Empathy is a key facet in the way we communicate. It’s one of the reasons why we get so frustrated at never-ending phone menus when we call customer service. We just want to talk to a person!

If we could only talk to an actual human being they would understand the issue we’re having.

They would know how frustrated we are, not just by the words we use, but by our inflection. 

Current uses of AI in customer communication are very basic, providing simple answers to straightforward questions.

But there will come a point where brands that want to use AI to carry out more complex conversations will need to make the AI more “chatty”.

The real question is whether they should, and will it be embraced by customers.

No matter how advanced AI becomes, will it ever truly be able to understand the complexities of each query, many of which won’t follow the same patterns?

Brands are exploring ways to do this right now. Microsoft’s Twitter experiment – Tay – tried to learn conversational language from millennials’ tweets.

Unfortunately, it ended up tweeting a host of inappropriate and offensive messages.

Google is feeding its AI a diet of romance novels to try and get it in the mood to be more conversational and less robotic sounding. It remains to be seen how that experiment will turn out.

Will AI ever be able to completely replicate human empathy? Probably not. AI may be able to mimic and learn speech patterns, but can it pick up norms, values and taboos?

Can it do so across cultures? (Something that many humans often find challenging.)

Trust is key to communication

It’s clear that AI will become a major factor in business communication, but if brands want the technology to be embraced by consumers, they need to be transparent.

Technology is no more perfect than the people behind it. When problems happen, and people get a glimpse behind the curtain, will they be shocked to see that they weren’t talking to “John” after all, but a highly advanced bot? 

Though it's an efficient system for the brand, it could feel like coldness to the customer. Don’t they even merit a real conversation with another human being?

Why are they being fobbed off to a machine? Brands that are honest with consumers from the start won’t have this problem, and will also benefit from continual feedback as customers get to grips with the new AI tools.

There may well be an opportunity for brands to have fun and create a specific tone of voice for their bot.

Brands need to recognise that some customers will always be more comfortable talking to a person, especially when their query is more complex than “what time do you close on Sunday”.

AI can be used to answer these straightforward questions, freeing up customer service agents to deal with the more complex issues – the ones that require more empathy to deal with.

AI can also be used in training, and as a way to support, augment and enable human interaction, but it can’t outright replace the human element.

Researchers continue to work on ways to make AI more sophisticated and human-like in its communication, but people will always be needed to ensure the subtleties and contradictions that have always been present in human communication are fully understood.

To learn more about bots, come and hear Econsultancy founder Ashley Friedlein’s talk at the Future of Digital Marketing 2016.

Tamara Littleton

Published 13 May, 2016 by Tamara Littleton

Tamara is CEO and founder of social media agency The Social Element and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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