Heather Clancy is a contributing editor at Fortune.
When I poke around on the Internet, researching a purchase or gathering data for an article, I’m often confronted with ever-so-persistent “bots” that want to guide my experience on certain websites. Almost as often, my reaction is to surf away from those sites with haste.
Philosophically speaking, I love the idea that artificial intelligence can play a role in improving communications. I even believe they will play a role (eventually) in helping businesses of any shape or size provide better customer service, especially in off-hours when a human agent can’t be available. Technically speaking, though, many bots are more annoying than helpful, though this year could represent the turning point. Facebook is pushing this idea quite vocally, as the social networking giant demonstrated during its F8 developer conference earlier this month. More than 40 companies, including eBay and Walmart, now use its Messenger service for support. They can even program the service to respond with certain automated messages or images.
Improving responsiveness is definitely a wise thing to prioritize. Almost three-quarters of the U.S. consumers surveyed last year by Forrester Research suggest that “valuing their time” is the most important thing a business can do to demonstrate good service. Bots can certainly help answer simple questions more efficiently, but that means human agents need to become even more empathetic. And that could mean allowing them to abandon canned scripts even as software agents memorize and “learn” from them.
Danish-born company Zendesk, a specialist in customer service software, is investing heavily in bot technology to improve its cloud platform, and that’s no surprise. But it is also experimenting with alternative services that rely on a distinctly human touch.
One example is its relationship with Be My Eyes, a startup that connects visually impaired individuals with sighted volunteers through a live mobile video app. As the name implies, the specific idea is to help with small tasks such as identifying the expiration data on a carton of milk. The same model could apply to other organizations interested in crowdsourcing volunteers to help with various support tasks, said Zendesk founder and CEO Mikkel Svane.
“We live in a world where we prefer to get support from either ourselves or from someone in a similar situation to ours,” he said. “If you take this to the next level, at the same time, we’re interested in helping each other.”
It’s a great reminder that bots are just one more touchpoint through which a customer relationship can be bred or broken. “It’s one big conversation with the brand,” Svane noted. With that in mind, are you comfortable with who—or what—is talking on your behalf?
BITS AND BYTES
Yahoo weighs its options. The Internet company is moving quickly to eliminate some of the more than 10 offers it received for all or part of its assets during the first round, reports Bloomberg. Those cuts could be made this week, and the most promising bidders will receive additional data on Yahoo’s finances. A final decision, however, will probably take weeks. (Bloomberg)
Google is starting a startup incubator. The list of executives who have left the tech giant to launch new ventures is long and growing longer. By starting an internal startup incubator, known as “Area 120,” Google hopes to convince would-be entrepreneurs to keep those ideas in-house, reports The Information (subscription required). (Verge, The Information)
Apple analysts worry over iPhone sales. The company already signaled that its first-quarter smartphone sales will be disappointing. More specifically, analysts are expecting year-over-year sales declines for the next two quarters—the first since the original product was introduced almost nine years ago. Apple is slated to disclose its financials Tuesday, after delaying its report to honor late Silicon Valley luminary Bill Campbell. (Bloomberg)
Cyber learning unicorn Udacity swaps CEO. Vishal Makhijani, a former Zynga executive who was the company’s chief operating officer, is taking over from Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun. The latter is still chairman, but his day-to-day responsibilities will be refocused on new projects and services. Udacity’s private valuation recently topped $1 billion. (Fortune)
Intel’s mobile chief is sticking around. Aicha Evans, one of the chipmaker’s highest ranking female executives, isn’t leaving as was rumored, according to sources. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich addressed the departures of two other senior execs, Internet of things group manager Doug Davis and client computing division head Kirk Skaugen during last week’s earnings call. (Fortune)
SecureWorks CEO talks going public, tech market, and Dell. It’s been a couple of years in the works, but Dell’s cybersecurity business unit SecureWorks is finally a public company.
The Atlanta-based company became the first technology business to go public in 2016. It was a rough first day: The initial public offering raised $112 million, less than anticipated. But SecureWorks CEO Michael Cote told Fortune he believes it was necessary for the company to go public. Being a separate company from Dell, which employs over 100,000 workers, will allow the company to get “back to our entrepreneurial roots,” posited Cote. More on what’s next.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Facebook downplays impact of corporate hack by David Meyer
EMC-Dell deal may face yet another hurdle by Barb Darrow
Here’s why almost every major tech stock fell last Friday
by Aaron Pressman
Microsoft and Google say they’ll play nice with each other by Don Reisinger
Google’s Chrome OS may soon get more than a million new apps
by David Meyer
Now anyone can climb Mount Everest in virtual reality by John Gaudiosi
ONE MORE THING
All-solar plane flies from Hawaii to California. It took 62 hours and a nine-month layover to arrive, but the Solar Impulse II has completed another leg of its journey around the world. Next destination: New York. (Fortune)