Over the last year or so, we’ve seen consumer-facing companies, both international and local, jump on artificial intelligence (AI) like it’s an all-encompassing answer to every customer service woe out there. The big draw, proponents of AI say, is chatbots and voicebots that are able to respond to basic queries without you needing a human to oversee things.
And on paper, it sounds great. You create an AI chatbot for next to nothing, and instead of having to employ dozens of customer service agents to interact with your customers over menial requests, the bot will handle the basics for you. This means that the agents you do employ can spend their time speaking to customers requiring more advanced assistance.
Consumer-facing firms have bought into AI chatbots in a big way. These days, if you interact with a company via chat through its Facebook page, or through a live chat window on its website or app, the first response will likely come from a bot, rather than a human. The responses started out as placeholders, letting the customer know that they’re about to be served, and that their messages are important to the business. But as chatbots have advanced, they’re now able to respond to a pretty wide variety of questions and queries based on pre-determined keywords.
For example, at compareit4me, we’d be able to program a chatbot to fetch information on credit cards and loans. We’re always fielding questions from customers on things like minimum salary requirements for this credit card or that loan. And from an insurance point of view, customers constantly ask if one policy comes with off-road cover, or if another policy comes with passenger cover. It’d be relatively easy to take the information from our insurance policy documents, plug it into a bot, and have the bot answer these sorts of queries.
The thing is, in this region, I’m not convinced that AI chatbots would help to improve customer service. I’ve always said that innovation is great, but innovation for innovation’s sake isn’t going to get you far. You need to consider the market that you’re operating in, and jumping on the chatbot bandwagon doesn’t take into account the nuances of the UAE market. For example, in the UAE, businesses have to contend with the fact that a large percentage of customers like to deal in cash.
So if you’re selling something online and you’re not offering a cash-on- delivery option, you’re alienating a lot of people- and missing out on their business. And it’s the same thing with chatbots. We’ve got real evidence to show that customers in this region want interaction with a real human. They want the trust that being able to reach someone on the phone instantly provides. When we launched our insurance comparison platform a little over a year ago, the system was largely designed to be automated and online.
Pretty soon, though, it became clear that we needed a call center to guide customers through the process. We invested heavily into a call center and our conversion rates for insurance sales jumped by 500%. That’s the value that real human interaction provides. Indeed, we’ve seen cases where a customer has requested cash on delivery by ticking a box online, but as soon as they’ve spoken to a customer service agent on the phone, they’ve offered their credit card details to us– totally voluntarily. That’s entirely down to having trust that you’re dealing with a legitimate company.
A year down the line, and precisely because we have well-trained, impartial call center agents guiding customers through the car insurance comparison and purchase process, we’ve got repeat clients happy to insure all of their cars through us. A recent customer used us to buy a policy for one his cars, and because we had such good interaction with him, he proceeded to buy policies for his eight (!) other cars through us, too. The customer wouldn’t have gotten such good interaction through a simple AI chatbot.
That human-to-human interaction is especially valuable when you’re talking financial products, which often need explaining to consumers. There’s a reason why banks still invest heavily in big call center to service their customers– people want the trust that having another, in-the-know human on the other end of a phone provides. As I heard at a conference recently, fintech startups have the answers to consumer problems, but banks have all the trust.
So to gain that trust as a fintech startup, you’ve got to do things more like a bank. None of this is to say that there isn’t a place for AI or chatbots in the Middle Eastern market. I have no doubt at all that companies will find applications for AI that are suitable for use here. However, as things stand, you really can’t beat good, old-fashioned human interaction. And that won’t change for the foreseeable future.