More people than bots?

In 1975, BusinessWeek magazine imagined the rise of the paperless office as computer use became more widespread. Of course, over the following two decades, consumption of paper doubled. A couple more decades on, we are finally seeing year-on-year decreases in office paper use, at least in North America and Europe.

One recent tech fascination is bots. Retailers are especially interested in bots which will allow consumers to ask unstructured questions about products and help them order pizza or whatever. Bots may be the latest advance in customer service automation, but, they aren’t quite up to scratch. There are still plenty of limits to overcome with machine-learning and natural language processing. It will not likely take four decades like the paperless office, but automated sales bots are still a ways off. In the meantime, what is likely to happen? To put it another way, how will the “paper double”?

Several people are typing…

The rise of computers didn’t destroy paper right away, but they sure did explode knowledge work, which needed to be captured on a whole lot of paper. Bots are interesting little toys (I do not use the term lightly) that cannot do a whole ton right now. One thing they are doing is helping to normalize text-based interactions with strangers. Bots are built on the shoulders of messaging services, and as more and more people use text as an interface, we could see less and less of a robot future.

Consider Intercom’s recent release of a new, human-powered messaging service to “help businesses more personally connect with their customers.”

There are lots of other website chat apps (eg. Drift), and they have been around in one (terrible) form or another for a long time. They seem to be getting more popular, especially in the ecommerce space, which makes me think about where they are going.

In the past, ecommerce sites were brilliant from a seller’s perspective because you could sell at scale, not only in terms of limits of your back-of-house inventory space, but also your front-of-house retail floorspace. You could accommodate millions of concurrent transactions without violating any fire codes. But, often your attachment rate suffered without the intervention of a friendly sales rep. As a consumer, ecommerce is great because you can do it in your PJs and you don’t actually have to interact with anybody.

That is changing. (Well, except for the pajamas part.)

I need some leggings…

With in-store messaging apps, ecommerce sites can have more sales staff on the virtual floor. These apps help scale the sales-customer interaction that ecommerce has been missing these past 20 years. Online sales staff can observe your path through the online store, and then come over to greet you with some sort of browsing relevant comment.

“I see you are looking at our space cat leggings, can I interest you in our new laser space cat leggings?”

This could be a boon to the jobs economy because we will see many online retail jobs that never existed before (yay?). Beyond that, human online retail sales could be the next wave of call center outsourcing, and might not spark a huge consumer backlash since regional accents and language variants are generally removed (I realize I am being hugely Anglo-centric here).

Technological innovation never quite delivers the way we think it will. Until bots deliver us a people-less ecommerce experience, we are likely to have to deal with more people than ever before when shopping online. Which means a near term opportunity may be to think about how to scale human-to-human messaging interactions, whether that includes bots or not.


NOTE: Today’s post was originally the premise for a #StartupCoffeeKL session, so it is supposed to be more open-ended than comprehensive. Since we took a break for the summer, I decided to write it up and post it here. Hopefully some of you guys will comment with your thoughts, and point out all the glaring holes in my logic, and provide some counter-examples. I am especially interested in more examples of prognostication going off the rails. Those are always valuable and ego-tempering stories. Keep an eye on the Digital Okanagan Meetup for the next #StartupCoffeeKL.

Author: Chad Kohalyk

Bellatrist, communitarian, tech contrarian. Generous with Likes. http://chadkohalyk.com