• January 31, 2020
  • By William Li, vice president of engineering, Marchex

3 Ways AI Can Help Understand Customer Intent

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What do customers really want?

This age-old question has taken on added urgency in today’s tech-driven economy. Despite advances in data collection around shopping habits, understanding true consumer intent, that Holy Grail of marketing and sales, remains exceedingly complicated for businesses.

Artificial intelligence is rapidly changing that. In fact, AI is already far surpassing traditional analytics software which is struggling to keep pace with the fast-shifting technology landscape. Today’s consumers are plugged in constantly across multiple devices, making their paths to purchase look more like Gordian knots and less like straight, well-behaved lines. Yet traditional analytics software can take days, even weeks, after a customer interaction to produce insights.

This is extra time costs businesses—in big ways.

Data analyzed from billions of minutes of customer-to-business phone calls shows that companies across a spectrum of industries lose millions of dollars each year because they don’t have the insights to understand what modern customers want during each moment of the customer journey. Moment-to-moment interactions, especially those that happen over the phone or via text conversations, are what make or break a customer experience. Businesses that can’t provide their sales reps with actionable intelligence on next best actions will churn and burn through customers. It’s remained a vicious cycle.

Until now. Technology has ushered in a new era of customer engagement. AI and machine learning can now process data and information at rates that far outpace traditional software, let alone the human brain.

Here are three ways how: 

1. Personalized Marketing and Selling

AI can power better and more personalized customer experiences. That’s because the technology takes mere seconds to recognize patterns and produce predictive insights useful in both customer acquisition and engagement. This capability enables one-to-one marketing that drives higher levels of customer acquisition. A 2017 study by Segment found that practicing personalization leads to increased revenue and customer loyalty in the long-run.

Another report by SmarterHQ released this year found that most consumers are more likely to engage with brands that personalize their experiences. In fact, the report showed that 72 percent of consumers in 2019 only engaged with marketing messages that were customized to their specific interests.

Here’s where the beauty of AI comes into play. Using massive datasets, it can tell businesses—in real time—what works for certain types of customers and what doesn’t. This information not only empowers marketers to make their messaging and offers more relevant, it also helps sales reps to adapt their tactics during conversations to drive more positive, empathetic outcomes. In short: AI can tailor-make a customer journey.

2. Understanding the 5 Ws and the H

Today, AI can generate predictive analytics for customer insights using Natural Language Understanding for the 5 Ws (Who, Why, What, Where and When) and H (How).

  • Who is calling or text messaging? Is the consumer a new prospect or returning customer?
  • Why are they contacting your business? Is the consumer evaluating new products or services or about to make a purchase decision?
  • What products or services are discussed in the conversation?
  • Where is the consumer interested in visiting a specific store location?
  • When is the best timing to engage and convert the consumer?
  • How was the conversation conducted, did the salesperson handle it well, and was the consumer delighted?

Marketing and sales can drive rich and personalized actions from these understandings. Without AI, the chances of missing consumer intent are high and the costs significant.

Nowhere is the need for this more evident than in the auto services industry. A lot of people, myself included, have had less than desirable experiences when calling an auto parts or a tire store. The data backs me up on this.

A recent report analyzing 8.7 million phone calls to auto services centers found that customer service representatives fail to book an appointment or sell a product 32 percent of the time to customers who expressed clear intent. While that is striking, just imagine what happens when customers aren’t clear.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine—the data tells us. The same report found that auto service centers miss out every month on opportunities to generate revenue and capture new customers because sales reps don’t have the data to personalize each journey. Even when customers say what they want, sales representatives aren’t properly trained to capitalize on the opportunities.

This shouldn’t be happening today. Customers expect brands to know them. No one wants to reach out to a business, only to fall down the voicemail chute. And no one wants to repeat information during conversations. When that happens, businesses throw potential revenue out the window. Just think: 68% of callers who don't reach an auto services center on their first attempt don't call back. Competition in that industry is fierce, and prospective customers are quick to move on if they don’t get what they want on their first try.

3. Marketing and Sales Are Converging for Better Customer Engagement

As AI drives better understanding of the consumer intent and how to personalize the customer journey, marketing and sales functions are converging more than ever to improve buying experiences.

According to SiriusDecisions, salespeople use on average more than 17 pieces of content to drive the selling process. This content is designed by marketing departments to be meaningful, relevant, and perfectly timed to wherever the buyer is in the journey.

Ironically, the AI-powered world we live in makes human connections even more valuable. Using AI for even the simplest of gestures, such as prompting a “welcome back” greeting to a repeat customer, can make an experience more human. Leveraging AI to also handle the routine tasks of customer engagement frees up businesses to invest more in dealing with complicated interactions that require empathy.

In short, AI is revolutionizing marketing and sales. It can analyze large datasets in real time; predict the 5 Ws and H for a deeper understanding of business-to-consumer conversations, and deliver targeted content for highly personalized, satisfying customer experiences at each moment of the buying journey.

That’s what I call reaching the Holy Grail.

William Li is vice president of engineering at Marchex.

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