Accenture Innovation Awards Discussion
The background for the discussion
While companies are fully aware of the need to develop good-looking digital interfaces on both web and mobile to engage with their customers, a new trend is developing where users no longer need to access a company’s owned touchpoint to interact with their products. You can now order an Uber using Facebook Messenger, Siri or Amazon’s Voice Assistant, Alexa. Uber does not control these interface for digital engagement with their customers. In addition, new services are emerging that don’t ‘own’ an interface, but solely rely on third parties for their digital engagement. Increasingly, we are seeing that companies engage with customers on 3rd party interfaces which are already familiar to the user e.g. chatbots in messaging services and smart assistances.
Round table discussion (What was the occasion to discuss this and how?)
What will the digital engagement with your customer be like in the future? This was exactly the question that we explored during the 2016 Accenture Innovation Award round table discussion hosted by MOBGEN. With participants from companies like Shell, Philips and Athlon, the MOBGEN team explored this theme and developed some interesting insights which we would like to share in this article.
Key value drivers for the trend
Most companies now have a digital strategy with well-designed interfaces for the web and mobile apps. In contrast, we are seeing that people are downloading less apps (source Comscore), and on average are using only 4-6 apps per day, but are spending increasingly more time in these apps (source Nielsen).
In addition, for the first time in history, the traffic on mobile phones and tablets has surpassed the desktop web traffic (source Statcounter).
For most companies, this will mean that they have to go where customers spend most of their time instead of trying to use the company’s interfaces. We are already seeing this with companies engaging with their customers on social media and other digital channels that are controlled by third parties.
“It is the customer that decides where and how they want to engage with your company.”
Providing customer service via third party channels is for many customer-oriented companies a common practice. With the technology becoming available to build chatbots for these channels, it will become only a matter of time before customers start interacting with these bots in a conversational manner. The automation of these channels with the use of chatbots will open more opportunities for companies to provide more of their digital services via these channels. With the ability to receive payments via chatbots, there are many business opportunities to be explored that are potentially disrupting for a company’s business model or industry. There are already examples where the entire customer journey for ordering goods can be done via chatbots including the payments, receipts and shipping notes.
Besides using third parties channels for communication with chatbots, there are also opportunities in providing additional value to the customer by providing data and services via third party interfaces.
A good example of this can be found in the public transport sector. In the Netherlands, the public transport companies have an app called 9292 OV with which users can plan their journey with bus and train. Besides their own app, these companies also share the travel information with Google Maps which users are using more frequently. The benefit for the Google Maps user is that this app provides more options for travelling e.g. car, public transport, cycling, and more. Thus, public transport companies can create more value for their customers by having an open API or providing data to a third party.
In addition to the above example, we are also seeing an increased interest in smart assistants like Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. These voice-enabled and AI-powered smart assistants are slowly opening up to third parties and there are already many companies enabling their services to work with these assistants. Good examples here are Spotify and Uber, who allow users to control or order their services via these smart assistants.
Challenges of digital engagement via third party interfaces
Third party interfaces are a good opportunity to serve customers independent of a company’s own channel, but there are certain challenges that will need to be considered.
How to drive Engagement & visibility
With third party channel integrations companies can create additional touch point with the customers through interfaces that they are already using. By making services available on channels customers already use companies can increase engagement and lower the barriers of access.
Customers that are already using these interfaces can now get more value from this channel by interacting with companies. However, this group will still need to be educated and informed about the possibilities of interacting with the company via these interfaces. Which functionalities can be used via this channel, and how does the user interact with the company in this channel? Similarly, these challenges also apply to customers who are unfamiliar with the interface itself.
For interfaces with a UI, the education process may be much faster since more information can be displayed and the customer can quickly process the information. In contrast, services that are available via voice interfaces, e.g. smart assistant, the customer may not immediately be able to understand the possibilities of the service via this channel. The learning curve here could potentially be bigger.
Depending on the channel, there are different opportunities but also challenges to differentiate from the competition. With services being provided through voice interfaces like smart assistants, the content will be the differentiating factor as the interaction will be handled by the assistant. The ability to interpret and process natural language will be handled by the third party, hence, the service will be the differentiating factor. Whereas in a more UI focussed interface, like chatbots, the differentiating factor right now is the language processing technology and also the design of the interface.
Another challenge that will arise is how these channels can be monetised. For certain companies a new channel could mean that they will have to reconsider their business model. For example, if the company relies on a closed environment hosted on their own channels, then the methods of distribution and monetisation might have to be reconsidered to cater to these channels.
What will become even more challenging for some companies is the moment when customers start to interact with a smart assistant which will provide answers directly without the need for a third party. Within web search results, companies strive to be on the first page, or preferably the first unpaid position. However with voice interfaces, the assistant will only choose to provide the user with one best answer. In a similar method, when the users start connecting other services to the smart assistant, these services can become the default source for the answers. Once a default service has been set, the user can get locked-in, thus providing both a threat and an opportunity for companies.
Similarly, when the effort for users to compare information becomes higher, the validation of information becomes more important. When the interface determines which information is presented. the user should have methods to review why they are provided with certain information. Most recently, we have seen the controversy of Facebook censoring certain types of media which sparked the discussion around the censorship of dominant channels.
Privacy vs value
At the moment, there is a big debate in the tech industry around the privacy level vs. the service level that users are willing to accept. This debate is especially present in the context of smart assistants and the user information they can access. For assistants to be truly smart, they will need to tap into privacy sensitive information like email, calendars, and more. The debate here is how much privacy people are willing to give up for an increase in service.
Companies that want to connect their services to the smart assistant will also need to consider this privacy vs value debate. Nonetheless, it will be the customer who decides through which services they want to access a company’s services and how important their privacy is over the value they receive.
Looking at the future, we are convinced that the way forward for most services will be via third party interfaces. Although we are only in the early stages of development in natural language processing and AI (the technology driving smart assistants), we need to start exploring the opportunities that third party interfaces provide for companies. A clear analysis of the customer journey as well as an agile approach to these developments is needed to explore where in the customer journey companies can create value, and how the value can be captured. In the end, the customer will determine where and how they want to interact with a company.