Bots – a form of AI, programmed to interact with humans through voice or text conversations – are increasingly common at home and in the workplace. But how do decision-makers go about procuring, implementing and adopting these little helpers in the workplace? For every K9 – the adorable robot dog in Doctor Who – there could be an Ava – the evil robot-heroine of Ex Machina. It can be a tough call for the bosses who must select and implement bot technology in the workplace.
As bots that we use in the home and at work have become more familiar, they have gained a degree of acceptance that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. Then, bots were generally portrayed in the media as exciting, interesting, and sometimes threatening. There were predictions that huge swathes of the population would lose their jobs, replaced by machines.
But nowadays, lines like: “Siri, what’s the weather?” “Alexa, play my favorite album” are heard routinely in many a home. They are beginning to be perceived as useful – often a way of making technology more accessible and easier to use. People who might struggle to program a complex heating system, for instance, can use their voice to change the temperature of a room.
Bots are everywhere
As the sophistication of workplace management tools increases, people expect to find bots helping us to perform better at work, as well as at home. For instance a bot may prompt someone to take the next expected step in a process, or give reminders such as – “Do you want to fill in your timesheet now – it is overdue?”
Customers and prospective customers also increasingly expect to encounter this technology. When people visit a website for instance they expect interactions to take place in real time. They are not prepared to fill out a form and wait for someone to contact them, and they don’t want to make a phone call. Often, when you go to a website these days, a conversational marketing pop-up bot will appear and ask questions designed to take you smoothly to the next step on the customer journey. Websites which don’t have this technology may risk losing customers.
That’s just an example. There are many areas where bots can smooth the way for both customers and employees, helping the customer to connect with the right information or the right person at the right time.
Is there a ROI?
Decision-makers tasked with bringing in bots worry about the possibility of failure and are plagued by questions like: “What if the bots are difficult for employees to interact with?” “What if the technology seems useless just a few months later?” And ultimately, “What’s the ROI on business performance going to be for the hassle that installing those bots is sure to bring?”
For me, this last question is the key one. Buying bots is like buying any other innovative and cutting-edge technology. If the process is slow, top-down and focused more on ticking boxes and “keeping up with the Jones” than on the outcomes it will fail. The focus has to be not on “We need to have bots now because others do,” but on how this fits into the bigger picture of your mission, vision and strategy as an organization.
Successfully selecting and implementing bots – just as with any new technology – is mainly about understanding people and processes. It starts with asking, “How can this technology support us to work together better to achieve our goals?”
Get everyone involved
Frankly, this is not a decision that should be handled by the C-suite in isolation and then imposed on the rest of the organization. The people in the boardroom are not usually the ones who are experiencing the everyday reality of dealing with customers and they are not the ones who will have to interact with the bots.
They can communicate the big picture reasons for making this change – the danger of losing a competitive edge by failing to embrace digital transformation; the importance of looking forward and tuning to the market. But it is important to understand the perspective of the customers, the employees, and of the different teams within the organization.
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Consultant Claudia Meyer-Scott raised the point in a recent blog she wrote about digital transformation that sometimes the leadership of the company is not diverse enough – and not only in terms of gender and background. For example, they might all be people of a similar age and experience level, who have been working together for years. A more relevant and informed set of decision-makers should be involved in the bot conversation.
Making selection agile
Technology selection processes have often been built around requests for proposals (RFPs); these extensive feature-and-function checklists have created a bias for inflexible, old technologies.
This approach can undervalue the application agility and flexibility required to succeed in today’s rapidly changing business environment. Here are three principles for agile selection that could form a basis for procuring the most appropriate bots for your business.
1. Be open to doing things differently — In order to decide where bots and related AI can be useful, you first need to look at what can and should be automated. There is no point in automating a bad process. Conversational marketing bots will only smooth the customer’s journey – they can’t help selling something people no longer want to buy. Processes are often designed around what is possible at the time – are there new possibilities? Start with the outcomes you want to improve, not the technology.
2. Include the end-users in the selection process — Involve representatives of the teams who will be putting this technology into practice. Understand their concerns and hopes. Make a use case for each role, considering how the bots will impact them. Consider making a use-case for each role, explaining the vision and how this will help them and the organization to succeed. Collaborate on the selection and implementation.
3. Deliver value swiftly, in a multi-stage process — Instead of holding back until you can deliver a perfect and complete adoption of the technology – in this case, bots — break the project into smaller parts. Enable the team to work swiftly and deliver value in stages. This allows for iterating the approach based on what’s happening on the ground. If, for instance, the new conversational marketing bot isn’t increasing customer engagement, there is room for adjustment.
Prepare for vegetables
Bots are big and they are going to be bigger. Engaging with the possibilities they offer is essential for business leaders in many sectors today. But like any other new technology, bots will provide return on investment only when they can drive better outcomes for the business. And bots have a long way to go. Remember the words of InspiroBot, a bot programmed to come up with wise quotations to influence people: “Seek success, but prepare for vegetables.”