Customer-Driven Growth

Where AI Meets CX: Inventor of the Hashtag Shares Innovative Concepts

by Colin Shaw on February 17, 2020

Technology, human behavior, Customer Experience are intersecting through the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and taking marketing in a new direction. To understand how it requires a better understanding of what the inventor of the hashtag Chris Messina’s calls Conversational Commerce. We spoke to Messina on a recent podcast about this concept and how it applies to customer-driven growth.

Messina coined the phrase Conversational Commerce in 2016 to describe all the changes happening in the way we interact with customers in the consumer marketplace. Specifically, it relates to how brands and consumers are going to communicate through messaging and social media. 

Messina is an expert on this subject. He spent over 15 years working in cutting-edge social technology and developer platforms, including Google and Uber. Messina recently co-founded a conversational Artificial Intelligence (AI) company called Molly, which is a service that skims your social media presence to answer customers’ questions on your behalf. Last year, his TED talk, “The Technology of Better Humans,” discusses a future transformed by artificial intelligence. 

Conversational Commerce Describes a Continuous Conversation

Messina first noticed these changes and shifts with apps that launched, which enabled people to communicate directly with their customers in a new way. Many times, these interactions surprised Messina. For example, many years ago, he tweeted snarky comments about a recent Customer Experience he had with the airline JetBlue. He was surprised when they responded via Twitter, mentioning him by name.

Now, brands do this all the time, but the direct response was not the norm back then. Messina says the experience made him feel different qualitatively. He was surprised that a large entity like Jet Blue would contact him, an individual. He saw the future right then, predicting that social platforms would allow brands to shift from static content on social media platforms to active interaction. In other words, brands behave like humans in these channels. Moreover, the brands wouldn’t necessarily be human-powered, but instead powered by AI.

By 2016, he was right about his predictions following the JetBlue interaction. Bot platforms had informal interactions over the platform with customers. Instead of brands only having static newsfeeds on social media that consumers scroll through, brands were having conversations with consumers at an individual level, addressing their specific needs or concerns.

From there, however, Messina envisioned that the interaction would deepen, switching to a multi-platform aspect. In other words, conversations might start on a social media platform and lead to an email interaction, which then led to a voice or in-person interaction with a company. Moreover, it would be a continuous conversation. How would that change brand interaction and how customers think of brands? Perhaps most importantly, would it lead to customers wanting to do more business with a brand? To Messina, these questions and their answers are the meaning of Conversational Commerce.

Brands behaving like humans demonstrates the idea that Customer Experiences are not only about the Rational Experience. It’s not just about the price or the delivery, or all the other objective things that businesses managed over the years. Humanizing brands through Conversational Commerce addresses inserting that human element, the subjective parts into the social media experience.

We see chatbots mimicking human behavior already today. However, Messina says technology is going to go much further than that in various ways. For example, when you call into Apple on the customer service line, a quasi-Siri will answer. The AI will then determine where to send you based on your responses to its queries. Messina says this AI works well in this context because the Apple Call Center is a restricted realm. It’s not a general situation where the AI has to know everything about all things, including random comments a customer might make on the call about a recent victory (or defeat) of a sports team.

Messina says that this type of call center domain is an area that a lot of people are working on because that’s a significant cost center for many businesses. Organizations want to lower those call center costs through automation.

Messina says the next step is for brands to define the type of relationship that it wants to develop with its customers. For example, a transactional interaction like getting a ride in a cab would require a different approach with AI than a brand that wants to embed itself in the life of its customers.

On the other hand, some brands want more than a transaction. These brands want a relationship with customers that makes doing business with the brand expression of the individual. He compares that relationship to how your friends are an expression of who you are. Some brands have similar relationships with their customers, especially in social media. 

Selling This Idea Upstairs Requires Reflection and Communication

My background was working in corporate life. The challenge with corporations is changing the culture enough to consider some of these ideas.

Messina agrees and says that corporations will have to think like a customer and have that feeling they want to evoke in people—whether it’s that the brand is fresh, or stable, or cutting-edge, or whatever—to emanate from the inside. He says if you don’t have those types of empathy and Emotional Quotient (EQ) on the inside, it isn’t likely to materialize on the outside. 

Sometimes humanizing the brand can feel awkward, especially on new social media platforms. Brands risk sounding out of place, like an uninvited guest at a dinner party. Messina says the way to avoid making an awkward splash in the online community pool is for a brand to understand their current reputation in the world. 

Discovering your reputation requires curiosity. Brands should see themselves as other people see them. At Beyond Philosophy, we call this an outside-in approach. Messina recommends asking questions also. The answer you get can reveal a truth you might not otherwise know, whether from the explanations themselves or the context and subtext that accompanies the response. 

Messina says once you understand your reputation, you can start effective communication in your online conversations. Brands should choose to participate in discussions that reflect their core values and address their reputational concerns. For example, marketers should evaluate the communication and determine their motivation for involvement. In other words, they should ask if they are participating because everyone else is doing it or because they have something to say. Better yet, is this a topic they would take on even if they hadn’t encountered this prompt online? Moreover, is their answer reflective of who they are and what they want to portray to the world? 

For me, this approach to conversational commerce is an internal process first. Brand managers and marketing professionals should understand what the organization is trying to do and what the Customer Experience is that they’re trying to deliver. It is surprising how many organizations haven’t fully defined that answer and achieved that understanding. When working with clients in this area, their organizations always gain a focus that was lacking before undertaking the exercise with us. 

When it comes to conversational commerce, Messina says brands need to approach the interaction as if the brand were a human being. We know that different human beings have different approaches to this effort. 

For me, communication of what you are trying to do and how you are trying to do it is vital. This communication requires clarity about how to be the type of human being your brand is trying to be and the Customer Experience you want to deliver. Once you have that clarity, you should define the behavior and actions that provide it. Moreover, you should be clear across the organization about these things. These fundamentals are true for startups with just a few members of the team up to the massive corporations.  

To hear more about A Glimpse To The New Trends In Humanizing Technology in more detail, listen to the complete podcast here. 

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Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

Colin ShawWhere AI Meets CX: Inventor of the Hashtag Shares Innovative Concepts