Sales talk: how conversational AI can win over customers

Conversational AI can mimic human interactions. With today’s consumers turned off by the hard sell, the technology holds strong potential for businesses


When it comes to sales, businesses should reverse Elvis’s famous advice: a little more conversation and a little less action, please. 

The secret to success with today’s consumers revolves around small talk and a long-term approach. Direct approaches – seeking to add notches to the sales equivalent of a bedpost – are a huge turn-off for customers. 

Happily, so-called conversational AI is now mature enough to assist adroitly with the more mundane topics, enabling humans to enter the chat room later, at the most appropriate point.

Conversational AI refers to tech solutions such as chatbots or virtual agents that use vast volumes of data, machine learning and natural language processing to imitate human interactions. Businesses today must adopt the technology as a matter of urgency, with laggards likely to lose out.

Technology doesn’t have working hours like a human employee does, meaning that customers can gain the help they desire on their terms

Over 70% of customers expect conversational service, meaning human-like interactions – complete with emojis, gifs, images and videos – whenever they engage with a brand, according to Zendesk. But only 40% of businesses can deliver this successfully. 

Little wonder the global software-as-a-service company recently announced new capabilities for its Sunshine Platform, a customer relationship management service, including conversational automation via bot technology. The upgrade enables organisations to expand automation to messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and allows them to build and train custom bots to address common issues.

“A quick conversation can resolve most things in life,” says Matthias Goehler, Zendesk’s chief technology officer in EMEA. “Embracing advances in AI to deliver conversational exchanges with customers easily is a natural direction for customer experience (CX) teams to take.”

Resolving customer issues 

One of the most significant benefits of conversational AI is that all customer communications are retained, Goehler adds. This means a more complete picture is achieved, allowing businesses to understand people’s personal preferences better and enrich their experience. It facilitates a personalised, data-driven service, removing some of the burdens on human agents and empowering them to do more for the customer in less time, he says.

“A conversational approach makes interactions more informed – built with the context of the customer’s history. When done right, it can even help increase a customer’s spending with you by making useful and simple recommendations to purchase from within a chat.”

Katie King is the author of two books about AI for sales and marketing and a member of the government’s All-Party Parliamentary Group Taskforce for the enterprise adoption of AI. Companies that embrace conversational AI will charm employees and customers alike, she says. 

“Often, many of the queries that cross the service agent’s desk are frequently asked questions with simple answers,” she says. “While these queries might be easy to answer, they still take up valuable time and limit the agent’s capabilities to handle some of the more complex issues. It’s overwhelming and leads to faster employee burnout and potential staffing issues for the company.”

Conversational AI can help tackle this challenge, so appeals to many organisations, notes King. “AI can cut out that first step of the process by engaging the customer and potentially resolving their issue without human intervention,” she says. “Additionally, technology doesn’t have working hours like a human employee does, meaning that customers can gain the help they desire on their terms.”

When done right, it can even help increase a customer’s spending with you by making useful and simple recommendations to purchase

With the surge in energy prices, concerned customers of E.ON – the largest energy and renewable electricity supplier in the UK – have certainly wanted help. Conversational AI is easing the load. 

Nikolai Berenbrock is the company’s head of conversational experiences. He says the company currently has more than 50 conversational AI solutions across the group, serving customers and employees and covering about 30% of demand. “This has enabled us to offer a better customer service experience and a massive reduction in our operational costs,” Berenbrock says.

E.ON uses AI to automate repetitive tasks so that agents are “available to jump in where they can make a valuable difference”, he adds. The technology “allows us to scale our customer service in a location and time-independent way, so that we can be where our customers are by offering our service on our website in a LiveChat channel, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, telephony channel, etc, whenever they need us, 24/7.” 

Talking up the possibilities

Jason Costain is head of fraud prevention at NatWest, which serves 19 million customers across 12 banking and financial services brands. He offers another example of how conversational AI is being utilised. 

“Using voice-biometric technology, we’re building a clear picture of our customers’ voices and what criminal voices sound like,” he says. “We can detect when we get a fraudulent voice coming in across our network as soon as it happens. Using a combination of biometric and behavioural data, we now have far greater confidence that we are speaking to our genuine customers and keeping them safe.”

Demand for conversational AI isn’t limited to customer experience, says Goehler. “We’re seeing huge demand from companies using our solutions for employee experience, with tickets filled by corporate employees jumping 31% last year – nearly double the rates seen by customer-facing support teams at B2B and B2C companies,” he says, signposting the direction of travel.

Despite the clear advantages of conversational AI and the momentum behind the technology, Goehler sounds a note of caution to business leaders who, to quote another Elvis song, can’t help falling in love with the technology. “While just over half of EMEA companies report that chatbots are becoming more human-like, AI can’t – and shouldn’t – be a 100% solution,” he says.

Zendesk research indicates more than 60% of customers will walk away after one poor experience – up 22% from last year. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, who can blame their suspicious minds?