Redefining the Lost Art of Conversation

From voice search to chatbots, brands need to make sure the technologies they employ keep the impersonal personal

By Philip Kinzler



The scene: 100,000 years ago in Africa. Ancient humans, looking to organize for protection and survival, build off of a common framework — the first language. This allowed them to find each other, to hunt and gather, and to seek shelter from the elements as a community.

The scene: 1876, Boston, Mass. "Watson, come here! I want to see you!" The first phone call made by Alexander Graham Bell. Though the history of the phone is complicated and controversial, there's no question it was a critical development in conversation. By 1877, the first telephone company had been established, and phones quickly became a key method to finding someone.

The scene: 2014, also Boston. A hardworking digital marketer (*ahem*, yours truly), sitting through a tedious presentation, receives a push notification on his iPhone that his Delta Air Lines flight is delayed. Thinking quickly, the marketer fires off a tweet to Delta requesting an earlier flight. Within moments the response comes through — not only is he confirmed on an earlier, non-delayed flight, he has received an upgrade. This convinces the marketer that instant, impersonal-yet-effective communication channels are here to stay.

Thus, the tale nearly as old as time — how best to communicate and service our friends, family, colleagues, and customers — comes into the modern, automated age.


First Impressions

Traditional brand development schools of thought maintain that brands dictate their positioning to consumers, but that notion has been turned nearly completely around. Now, brands are the sum total of their consumers' experiences. And consumers, with myriad ways to connect with brands, services, and people, have never demanded more: instant feedback, instant support, all tailored to their exact needs, with a level of personality and personalization that is near impossible to attain. What happens next? Everyone is likely to be disappointed.

Brands have been rocked by this transition. No longer can they put content out on their sites and hope consumers stumble upon it by virtue of their love for the brand.

One of the newer and more exciting outcomes of this shift has been around conversational marketing. Now, brands have to win with service by creating relevant content, personalized to their target and prospect markets, and actively pull consumers in through social, search, advertising, and other content marketing tactics. The next evolution of that, of course, is a two-way interaction (i.e., a conversation) between the brand and consumer through social media, messaging, and even AI-powered advertising.

The upshot, however, is that customer service representatives, once taken for granted, have become a vital component of the brand experience. They can take on the role of social media marketer and psychologist, managing consumer input on a variety of channels, with the best ones expressing empathy and working hard to keep everyone's heads on straight. That quickly becomes untenable, however, with too much training required and too much stress in always being on.

Automated, intelligent bots across messaging networks like Facebook Messenger, Twitter, iMessage, or WhatsApp, have also enabled brands to become more consumer friendly and, in some cases, relegate the customer service rep to a higher-level position, getting involved when the automated system either can't help or to provide an empathetic human response.


Real Talk

The rise of consumer-friendly interaction channels that leverage augmented and artificial intelligence, like Apple's Siri, Google Home, Amazon's Alexa, and IBM Watson, offers the ability to take on increasingly complex tasks, including advanced customer service. IBM Watson, for instance, offers natural language processing capabilities to parse multifaceted requests and serves up relevant responses quickly and accurately, which is critical, as the overwhelming majority of voice queries are natural language-based. And voice is becoming the default user interface, which reflects interaction at a more human level than ever before.

This technology is poised to grow exponentially. As Adweek reports, voice recognition and smart/AI technology will be a $40 billion industry by 2022, with 55 percent of homes having a smart speaker. Last year alone 40 percent of adults used voice search daily. There's not an industry that won't be affected. Manufacturing will be, of course, but also health care, education, and advertising. These are all areas where empathy is crucial for success.

A greater understanding of how people think and feel can help drive adoption and acceptance of AI.


A Few Kind Words

So can AI messaging and voice technology really replace the human touch, especially when empathy and understanding are in short supply? There are multiple schools of thought. On the one hand, Amazon has enabled Alexa to reward people — especially kids — for using the "magic words" of please and thank you, under the assumption that being rude and ordering the system around sends the wrong message to impressionable young folks. On the other hand, being polite to virtual assistants and bots could raise issues of misplaced empathy, causing humans to believe that the machines have similar sensibilities and feelings. As a recent article in Fast Company points out, thinking that machines have the right to refuse our requests, and ultimately treating machines like people, can inversely lead to treating people like machines. Machines are machines; even IBM Watson, arguably one of the most advanced AI systems in existence today, requires basic knowledge about a subject as well as human-informed training before its machine learning capabilities kick in.

However, because humans do program and train these machines, what's wrong with including empathy in the mix? The more AI becomes responsible for handling mundane or exceptional tasks — from scheduling reminders to ordering food to managing a complex household of connected devices to checking the warranty on a set of pots and pans — the more a human sensibility should be required. Even to program a machine to connect empathetically with humans while searching for answers can potentially lead to more positive experiences with the interface — and with the brand itself. AI systems that are trained in brand-appropriate experiences and natural language processing can better understand the pain points of consumers and provide accurate, actionable information with a sense of empathy.

In the end, as much as consumers crave an immediate response to their issues, dealing with AI and other automated systems may become more and more the norm. To paraphrase Otis Redding, why not try a little tenderness? Program AI systems to express empathy and enable a little more love for your brand.

Philip Kinzler (@PhilKinzler) is the product marketing lead at IBM Watson Advertising. You can email him at