Recently, I was lucky enough to attend and present at the IBM Think Conference in Las Vegas - surrounded by some of the world’s most innovative companies - for a four-day think tank about everything cloud and artificial intelligence (AI).
The experience got me thinking about the astonishing times in which we live. You only need to look at the devices, technologies and platforms that you use every day to realise this. How many of them even existed just five years ago? When you think how quickly futuristic visions like Minority Report or even The Jetsons have transitioned from unrealistic to quaint, and how blasé we are becoming about the revolutions that happen every day around us, you get a sense of just how fast things are evolving.
The evolution of technology today is also extremely Darwinian. New ideas emerge to fix problems, replacing weaker ideas which are left obsolete. And it’s the same in business thanks to a landscape that’s constantly shifting: whole industries are being challenged, overhauled and sometimes replaced.
The companies that have risen to the top of their markets are those that have done so by acknowledging and identifying the need to adapt and change to stay relevant. They survive because they’re the fittest.
Innovation used to be an activity derided in many organisations as a folly, the domain of those disconnected from the realities of making money. If this is still the case in your organisation, ask yourself: How successful Apple would have been if they’d stopped at the iPod? If Coca-Cola had been happy to remain a medicine sold at pharmacies? If Facebook had stayed a private network for Harvard students to chat? If Amazon stopped at selling secondhand books?
Innovation is the lifeblood of successful companies. Through experimentation, iteration, mistakes, learning and optimisation, it sets a course ahead for the business to grow. Yet humans are hard-wired to oppose change. Our natural response is usually negative (we either fear it or dismiss it as a fad) - often because we have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. It’s easier. It’s safer. It’s known.
Eventually, however, if the innovation meets a genuine need and is valuable to us as human beings, we come to understand it, to change our way of thinking, to change our behaviours.
Today, we’re seeing exactly this with artificial intelligence. Depending on whom you ask, AI is either a silver bullet, a disaster or a joke. There’s endless debate regarding what it means, how it could affect us, why it’s a threat, whether it really exists at all, etc.
Well, the fact is, they’re already here. Smart businesses all over the world have been using machine learning and AI to different degrees for years. Whether to perform back-end functions or help with customer service, this is now becoming an essential part of successful companies’ operations.
Detractors will often argue that people don’t like to deal with computers, but the facts would seem to contradict that. In the Darwinian world of business, technologies and products that customers dislike or fail to adopt are very quickly shut down and replaced. Yet investment in customer service chatbots, for example, is growing massively.
And while digital assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Google lead the way, businesses without billions of dollars cash sitting in their bank accounts can be, should be and are playing a part in this revolution in the way businesses engage with their customers. From health insurers, to florists, banks and retailers, the number of companies using AI to help their customers is growing rapidly.
But why? Quite simply, because it’s good business.
Our job as businesses is to meet consumers’ needs. A growing number of customers love to engage with chatbots and, on the whole, customers who self-service digitally have on average far higher satisfaction levels than those who don’t. I know this to be true because at nib we track it. Chatbots aren’t for everyone, but they can be a powerful part of the overall service mix.
Secondly, AI is scalable. In a market like New Zealand, our relatively low and dispersed population means that cost to service can be quite high compared to other markets around the world. This can have a seriously restrictive impact on business growth - and when businesses don’t grow, there’s less competition. Consumers have less choice: they’ll still have to pay high prices to incumbents and put up with what they’ve had for years. Frankly, they miss out. AI enables businesses not only to provide great customer service but to deliver that an infinite number of times without sacrificing quality. It’s replicable and it’s scalable.
Is AI the panacea to all business challenges? No.
Is it perfect for every kind of product, every kind of customer, every kind of interaction? No.
But can AI radically change the way your business operates, and the way your customers feel about you? You bet it can.
The question is, what will your business (as in, you!) do about this? Dismiss it as a folly, a fad? Or see if the business case stacks up? I suspect you’ll find that it does.
Ben Rose is GM - Direct and Partnerships at nib New Zealand, the country’s second-largest private health insurer. His team is responsible for customer sales and retention under the nib brand, as well as those of white label partners AA Health and Done.
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