How Shops Can Use AI to Improve Customer Communication
When the term “artificial intelligence” was coined back in 1955 by John McCarthy, the idea was simple: train computers to think and learn like humans.
"Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs,” said the cognitive scientist in a 1979 article, “and having beliefs seems to be a characteristic of most machines capable of problem solving performance."
From basic problem solving to learning new languages to social skills, AI has taken many forms over the years, and today just about every industry utilizes it. According to research company O’Reilly, one in five companies has incorporated AI in some way, shape or form.
And auto repair shops are no exception, as the term “artificial intelligence” will become part of the everyday when reaching customers, says Erica Sietsma.
“It’s already impacting service departments,” says the senior vice president of consumer engagement and product strategy at Digital Air Strike, which uses AI-powered software to track and communicate with drivers in a given market, “and now we’re seeing it take a step further.”
Other industry companies are following suit. In August, Auto Profit Masters’ launched its new AI-powered management system, and Openbay’s artificial intelligence just received an $8 million boost from Shell. From reaching drivers to completing repairs, here’s a breakdown of AI designed to streamline communication with customers.
AI’s Role in Customer Communication
Technological giants are investing heavily into artificial intelligence. In 2017, AI-focused mergers and acquisitions occured 25 times more over 2015 alone. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Baidu are acquiring and partnering with companies to provide new AI-powered tools, and many of those deals target small businesses to aid in two specific areas:
As marketing strategies move out of the 20th century and into the 21st, David Rogers says digital marketing has become the norm. The ROI that once took weeks and months to realize can now be achieved within minutes as your business connects with potential customers in real time.
That mentality drove his company, Auto Profit Masters, as it developed a new management system, Shop4D. In addition to its suite of offerings—including POS solutions, digital inspections and parts ordering capabilities—Shop4D also looks to transform how shops locate and target customers that will best benefit the bottom line
Based on your customer database, Rogers says Shop4D’s AI studies your consumers and gives advice based on that data. “It discovers the people who own 2010 Toyota Camrys,” he says, “and spend $5,000 per year on maintenance. Our AI can catch that and tell you to market to those people.”
Shop4D is specifically targeted at shops, but broader options for small businesses are available. Salesforce, a noted CRM platform, offers Einstein AI, which analyzes phone conversations, emails, social media posts and customer reviews to suggest adjustments to marketing. And companies like Acquisio make suggestions for improving pay-per-click campaigns across multiple platforms.
As most business owners are aware, Facebook Messenger now offers automated messaging. It’s a basic setup that allows your shop to form an automatic reply that either answers a question or lets a customer know you’ll reply soon.
But that’s just the initial touch point in the customer communication process. What about the next steps? Like scheduling service? Completing transactions? Relaying vehicle diagnostics? Analyzing customer feedback?
Well, Sietsma says, even those areas are now covered by “virtual assistants,” which can communicate with customers in real time. While there are certainly drawbacks and limits to what virtual assistants can offer, Sietsma says this AI-powered software is ultimately built to study customers over time and improve its communication accordingly, just as any human would do.
“You, as a service shop, don’t need to make that call,” she says. “We’ll contact them, schedule service, send you service appointment, confirm it for you with a text message or email.”
With more AI targeted at auto repair shops, these services are designed to leverage real-time vehicle data and keep the customer updated moment to moment during a repair.
In addition to industry-specific services like Digital Air Strike, virtual assistants designed for all small businesses have become more common. A service like DigitalGenius aims to provide end-to-end resolutions for customer issues, and Demandforce looks to arrange appointments with customers automatically.
With AI pumping through both your digital marketing and customer messaging, the technology effectively aims to take several tasks off you and your staff’s hands. While a management system doesn’t remove your role as a marketer, and while a CRM platform doesn’t remove the need for human-to-human communication, AI does aim to remove steps from the process.
But, as Sietsma points out, your AI is only as smart as you.
“What is a bot there to do?” she asks. “Bots can cover great ground with automated responses. But you’ll also have to isolate where the bot isn’t working and take over.”
Sietsma encourages gathering your team together to ready and track the AI. Determine the kinds of responses you’d want your AI to use, and adjust them over time as your AI studies your customers and provides feedback.
Ultimately, your AI can never be human. “Don’t let it run off in a silo,” warns Sietsma, as there is some customer communication you must take over. Watch your AI and determine when a conversation requires the human touch.