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Help over hype: the best tech is born from trends in behavior

By Aaron Rankin / April 23, 2018

Think back to when you were a child and the kid down the street got a new toy that interested you.

Now try to put yourself back in that mental state; really imagine it. What are you feeling?



Fear of falling behind?

About to negotiate with your parents for the toy?

We start “keeping up with the Joneses” at an early age because our human nature is to stay ahead. It begins innocently enough with the aforementioned “toy envy.” But our human desire to be first-in-class can evolve into a life-long rat race that, depending on one’s level of control, may either be a positive motivator or a costly distraction.

Businesses are also susceptible to this intrinsic rivalry. And while a certain level of direct competition is necessary for a company’s survival and success, there’s risk in decision-making becoming myopic. Examples abound of companies getting so caught up in industry trends and imitation that they lose sight of what’s best for their customers and self-destruct.

Technology trends elicit particularly strong reactionary behavior. Companies, eager to gain or maintain competitive edge, presume the latest products, tools, or platforms will keep them fresh and drive business. Like their childhood selves, these decision makers become distracted by the shiny object enticing with relevance, authority, and advantage. Judgement is hastened by the fear of losing competitive edge and the seemingly quick fix.

What we see are decision makers approaching strategy backwards – focused on alluring solutions without deep consideration of needs.

Without a problem-focused mindset that puts the customer first, companies risk investing in non-existent issues, or miss problems that actually need attention. Breaking the cycle takes pattern recognition and discipline. Here are some thoughts on how your company can avoid the trend trap and adopt technology in a way that truly benefits your customers.

Don’t interfere with the customer experience – improve it

As a case in point, the 2016 rush to build chatbots for everything missed the mark.

Technology companies big and small were bringing Artificial Intelligence (AI) platforms to market, demonstrating remarkable features like voice-understanding, image recognition, and push-button FAQ chatbots.

The feeling was that AI could empower conversational interfaces to anything. Users could depend on a Bot like a concierge—successfully acting upon their idiosyncratic, ambiguous needs. Riding the hype, tens of thousands of Bots were deployed on Facebook Messenger alone.

By early 2017 reality set in: the results were bleak. Chatbots on Facebook failed to meet user needs 70% of the time. Most Bots offered little value, or only got in the way. Everyone started to pull back, despite great collective investment from many respected organizations and learned people.

What happened?

Arguably the state of AI was broadly misunderstood, from CEOs of the biggest tech companies on down. People saw glimpses of the future—voice Bots speaking to us, cars driving themselves, faces being recognized—and thought AI was ready for the mainstream. However, that argument alone puts too much responsibility on the technology; after all, humans decided to deploy it.

What happened was AI hype euphoria distracted the decision makers from real customer problems.

The 2016 hype also drove Sprout to consider building chatbot tools for our customers. Once we set aside the novelties, the AI hype gave us pause. There was no evidence of the tech working well with open-ended human conversations. And no one was considering the annoyance factor, the downside of it not working well.

At Sprout, we felt anecdotally that AI-powered conversational experiences were early. Our team members cited poor experiences with voice Bots like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, where even the most basic of questions couldn’t be consistently handled. Here were the platforms receiving the most investment by the biggest tech firms, and they were falling short.

The promise was there, but we decided to approach chatbots incrementally, in a way that added little risk to the customer experience. Ultimately we came to market with a simple, non-AI automation designed to help customers and business users a little. We then gradually built it up, learning from usage and customer feedback.

This wasn’t a great act of restraint or clairvoyance, but the fortunate influence of our values. Our company’s mission is to empower brands to have excellent customer interactions. Grounded in that, we took what inspiration we could from automation, and focused our efforts towards improving user satisfaction metrics. Our chatbot solution still doesn’t yet have AI wizardry, but it has markedly increased brands’ ability to give great service at scale.

Start by looking at trends in behavior

Real tech trends are rooted in behavioral shifts. Watch people and observe their needs. Ask what’s changing about your customers, their behaviors, or the new problems they have.

Our work on the chatbot builder was informed by two emerging usage patterns. First, more and more people were turning to social channels with what I’ll call “transactional needs” – cases like checking the status of their order or asking for store hours. Our customers were spending an increasing share of time answering frequently asked questions, or handling the same kinds of questions, personalized to the user.

Compounding that, there was a steady global increase in the use of private messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Line. This added conversational scope, by giving people the comfort to provide sensitive information like order information, billing addresses, and intimate details.

These patterns were behavioral and well-established by the time we addressed them. It took critical mass to expose and prove the needs. Our product cycle didn’t start with anyone asking for a Bots, or an AI-based solution, nor did we even presume early on that private messaging would be hot. We watched the trends, and eventually elicited the true need: tools to better address repetitive customer interactions.

Take the time to get it right

If you’re blessed with the clairvoyance to identify a real trend or shift in consumer behavior – as well as the right solution – there’s always room for execution error. And for many, that stems from rushing the release before the proper research, iteration, and refinement has been performed.

Businesses need to know what they’re optimizing for.

At Sprout, it’s customer experience: Delivering well-understood value through the right features and experiences, even at the expense of being the first to release a new feature or tool. We believe, especially in B2B, that the winner will be the one that offers reliable long-term ROI. Hype fades and ultimately rationality triumphs.

Knowing that we had to optimize our Bots to match the CX our users demanded and expected from us helped focus our product design and engineering teams. Not only did our chatbots have to solve the behavioral trends of private messaging at scale, but they had to do so in a way that offered ease of use for our customers.

And those customers wanted full transparency into how their Bots would interact with users. This meant that our differentiator wasn’t initially going to be AI, but trustworthiness throughout the stack.

Human trust informed most of our product offering, from the ways that business users configured Bots, to the end-user problems being solved, to the feedback business users had into how end-users interacted with Bots.

Our efforts were heavily spent on user experiences and interfaces for business users and end users. In that way, there was a chained emphasis on people: starting with the interfaces to configure and control Bots, and then down into the actual automated experiences between end-users and Bots.

Tech is a means, not the end

As humans we’re wired to react emotionally to shiny things, and to instinctively fear falling behind. The desire to outpace the next person extends into business life and is particularly strong with emerging tech trends.

As decision makers, we need to separate hype from needs in order to drive our businesses forward. Ground yourself in the problems people face, not the tools available. Technology is a means of creating and delivering better human experiences, not an end in itself.

Aaron Rankin

Aaron Rankin

Aaron Rankin is a Co-founder and CTO at Sprout Social, where he looks over the technology team. Culture begets success in engineering, and since writing Sprout’s first line of code, Rankin has championed a balance of excellence, simplicity, pragmatism, and autonomy. Away from the keyboard, Rankin enjoys great wines, dense non-fiction and laughing with his wife and kids.
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