AI Assistant or Virtual Advisor? How to Buy Your Best AI

More brands are using an AI assistant to automate basic requests and customer service. This application of AI, however, may not be the best choice for many businesses. We often assume that AI can automate away our jobs, our livelihoods, even our human relationships. While AI assistants have been gaining popularity as a way to replace some human agents, virtual advisors are a new concept that offers a human-like experience in places we simply haven’t had humans before. 

The simplest example of this is online shopping. When we discover a brand or a product, what’s the most “human” thing we need? Usually, it’s the ability to explore a potential outcome without committing to a course of action. Whether we’re thinking with our heads or with our hearts, the dialogue we have in our heads about whether a purchase is right for us is usually a conversation we have to have alone – until now, of course. 

In this kind of situation, a “virtual advisor” plays a better role than an “AI assistant”. The most straightforward way to tell these two apart is as follows: AI assistants are best suited to helping us figure out something we already want to do. Virtual advisors are best suited to helping us figure out something we don’t know if we want to do.

This means that virtual advisors can help us discover things we didn’t expect. In the process, they can also make it easier to explore and buy things instead of just trying to work around the same old websites, search engines or other interfaces that lack the responsiveness to make life easier for us when we shop. 

What Best Describes an AI Assistant?

An AI Assistant can be best described as something that helps guide you to an outcome you’re already set upon. This usually applies to support, service and help desk-type functions. This means that you probably start interacting with an assistant because you have a problem, and that the assistant is there to help you get the problem figured out faster and without another human, where possible. 

Consumers say they expect to use messaging interfaces to interact with businesses for customer service  (70%, according to Facebook). This is the most predictable use for messaging, chatbots and Conversational AI, and we assume it makes sense because it’s what we’re familiar with. We always think of customer services tasks as cumbersome, difficult, hard to manage and something that could be better managed by machines, even though in many cases that’s not really true.

In some cases it’s entirely reasonable to automate a customer service function. Consider, for instance, if you want to find out where your latest eCommerce order is or if you have a problem with your phone bill. Contacting a chatbot can make a difference because it allows you to get instant answers, rather than wait for a customer service rep to learn about and adapt to your situation. What’s more, because they’re automated, they can also allow for a more seamless customer experience that makes it easier to refer to whenever you have a problem.

When you’re facing your third phone bill issue in three months, though, you’re better off talking to a person who can understand and adapt to your tone of voice, frustration, exasperation, or any other way in which the issue may be tainting your relationship for a brand. This isn’t the right place for an AI assistant, but many brands assume it’s possible. Limited engagement and short interactions are best suited for this type of solution, but then how much value does that really create for your brand? In short, very little, and if it’s not creating much value for you, it’s likely not an experience that your customers love either. 

What Best Describes a Virtual Advisor?

This is where virtual advisors become a more useful way to think about chatbots and conversational AI. Chatbots fundamentally shift the burden of learning about a domain or topic from the user, and where pre-populated with the right knowledge and expertise, chatbots must begin to learn about the consumer and then adapt their existing knowledge to the needs that they uncover. 

This is not a fundamentally new dynamic within customer service – human representatives are surfacing and managing our needs at all times. However, when a service representative does it, they know there’s a specific issue to be addressed. When a sales representative does it, they don’t know what the best choice for us is from the outset, but they’re able to use the information they have about us and connect it to the most relevant products or services they might be offering. 

Why is this important? Well, when we’re in the process of buying something, there are a lot of potential outcomes, and usually a very few that we express any commitment to. When we’re in a store, there are people there to assist us. When we’re online, there’s not much beyond search engines, basic websites, quizzes, guides or otherwise one-way experiences that burden the user with making more decisions. Where advertising and marketing interfaces do “learn” about us, they often tend to make us feel watched or creep us out (along with increasing the data protection risks a brand faces). 

Instead of solving defined, pre-populated problems, virtual advisors take the approach of learning about a user and helping them find the best set of choices for them. Users openly disclose specific, relevant information to the advisor, and the advisor provides responses, generates recommendations, guides general product inquiries or answers the specific consideration questions a customer has in the decisive moments before they make a purchase.

With timely responses, consumers will be less concerned and more excited about any given purchase. This often leads them to buy more, buy more at once and feel more satisfied by their shopping experience. If you’re just considering an AI assistant, you’ll miss out on these benefits while your customers increasingly respond to the more effective, personalized marketing being offered by other brands.

How Should Your Approach Shift with Virtual Advisors?

The way to think about these two solutions – AI assistants and virtual advisors – is not that one is absolutely better than the other. Instead, they are distinctly different applications or use cases focused primarily on different outcomes. Their functions can be combined in limited ways, but virtual advisors simply have so much more potential to influence your bottom line – potential that is just starting to be realized.

As a business solutions, virtual advisors can offer a host of marketing and revenue-driving benefits that an AI Assistant can’t match.

To realize this potential, you need to consider the effect of this paradigm shift on the way you think about this technology. When you want to generate revenue, you need to think firstly about the type of personality that a customer will buy from. You need to get past the idea that “customer service tonality” is your best choice- consumers will want to talk to and shop with an AI that acts and communicates like them. 

If you’ve addressed personality and gotten someone to start interacting, your first thought is going to be what it can offer you next as a company or brand. The fact is, if you’re looking to get customers to buy stuff, chatbots can get them to buy more. Virtual advisors are the best way to do that. You don’t need to load them with process knowledge and large decision trees about how to manage customer service issues. Instead, you can focus on “horizontal knowledge” across a large number of product types and categories.

By integrating your eCommerce catalogue – along with the core traits and benefits of each product – you can start a process that turns your eCommerce offering into a true one-to-one experience. Once you’ve deployed this process, you’ll actually begin learning about your users and matching them to better choices, improving their experience and making it easier for them to act on purchase decisions.

Where is The Real Value Going to Come From in AI Automation?

In 2019, $7.3 billion worth of retail transactions will have happened through conversational AI. By 2023, that number will reach $112 billion. What’s to account for this exponential growth? The fact is, conversational AI – specifically in the form of virtual advisors – are only just starting to gain traction. More consumers are trying them every year, and more of the experiences they provide are driving higher revenue and deeper satisfaction with different brands. 

This means a few simple things – the real opportunity for AI assistants is actually virtual advisors, deployed to sales and marketing functions for brands of all sizes. If you do this right, you could capture incremental revenue that – if the success of other personalization efforts is any indicator – could represent anywhere from 10-30% more revenue across your different commerce channels. Now is your chance to plant this seed and watch it bloom. 

Still have questions?  We’re fired up to help as many brands as possible to raise the bar of user and customer experience in eCommerce.  If you need help implementing website engagement tools for your brand or want to talk further about any of the tactics in this article, we should talk ASAP!

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