Will customers really want to use AI?


Retailers are always looking for ways to make their services more efficient and reduce customer effort. While many have started to use automation, there’s debate around the future of artificial intelligence in retail. Will customers feel comfortable interacting with AI? Or does AI represent a risk that most retailers should avoid?

Jack Barmby, CEO at Gnatta, explores what the future of AI assistants looks like, and explains why empathy and emotional reflection lies at the heart of the technology’s success for retailers.

There’s long been talk of a general air of distrust around artificial intelligence, from fears that AI will take our jobs, to some people finding the idea of talking to a digital human unsettling. However, much of this may be down to our preconceptions and our lack of understanding over the role that AI already plays in many of our lives.

Research has shown that 78% of UK consumers would rather interact with a real person than a machine; they thought they’d continue to think this despite any advancements in technology.

Ask a customer about their experiences of ‘talking to a machine’, and they’ll probably recount tales of trying to negotiate a call centre menu, getting increasingly frustrated at the computer-generated voice that doesn’t understand what they’re saying.

Current AI couldn’t be more different, and it’s already making our lives easier.

Consumers are already happily using artificial intelligence

Retailers sometimes don’t tell consumers a lot about what goes on behind the scenes. Creating a superior customer experience, providing efficient customer service, and reducing customer effort are all key goals for retailers, and many are already using automated solutions to help them reach their targets.

As natural language processing evolves, more retailers will start to use AI that utilises machine learning (an automated solution that can learn and improve from its interaction with humans) to service customers.

People may have concerns about AI, but once they see how it can improve their daily lives, they’re usually happy to use it. Both Netflix and Amazon use AI-powered recommendations – McKinsey reports that 75% of what we watch on Netflix and 35% of what we buy on Amazon stems from a recommendation generated by an algorithm.

Perhaps, then, we’re happy to use AI, as long as it doesn’t try to be too human.

Customers are willing to try out digital human support options

There are indications that customers are more than willing to use AI. Pega research found that 35% of people were comfortable interacting with a business using AI. While 28% said they would be uncomfortable, 37% were indifferent.

While artificial intelligence customer support options are still in their early stages, there have been some examples of retail banks trialling digital humans to work alongside their customer service teams.

Swedish bank, SEB, uses an AI-powered virtual assistant – Amelia – to handle customer queries. It’s been dealing with up to 200 customer queries a day and is able to detect the customer’s intent with 85% accuracy.

UK bank, NatWest, has also been working with digital humans. In testing digital humans, Cora, it found that customers who tended to avoid digital services “may be more inclined to interact with digital humans like Cora”.

Then there’s the popularity of AI-powered voice devices. Shopping via voice is predicted to be worth $5 billion in the UK by the end of 2022. As of 2018, 85% of Amazon Alexa customers selected the products that Alexa recommended to them.

Not only are people willing to use AI, but there are clear signs that they trust it.

Customers will vary in their willingness to accept AI

Just like any new technology, people will adapt to it in different ways. There are still people who don’t use smartphones or have a mobile phone at all. Some of us love paying for our purchases via apps, while others continue to use cash or cheques. There’s no timeline for adoption.

We don’t get on with everyone we meet, and we won’t like all forms of AI we come across in the future. However, as customers, we will always want our questions answered – and our problems resolved – as quickly as possible. If we find that AI makes our lives easier, that it isn’t intrusive and that retailers are open, honest, and informative about the technology they use, there’s no reason why AI won’t play an essential role in the future of retail.