In the age of AI, trust is the most important core value

Unless your customers trust you -- and trust your use of technologies -- your business may soon be on the losing side of the customer experience battle. Customers want to know that the companies they do business with have trust as their most important core value and guiding principle.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

Unless your customers trust you -- and trust your use of technologies -- your business may soon be on the losing side of the customer experience battle.

How do you win wallet share and loyalty today? It starts with staying a step ahead of customers' expectations. Beyond getting personalized marketing messages, customers are looking for touchpoints that reflect their previous interactions. They want an easy checkout experience and seamless transitions between purchase channels -- service that's not only fast but proactive. See a pattern? Increasingly, "staying a step ahead" means mastering artificial intelligence (AI).

This is the reality of rising customer expectations. Shareworthy customer experiences are often powered by AI -- but the biggest, most unshakable element that's fueling them? Trust.

Customers Are Excited -- and Apprehensive -- About AI

First, let's take a closer look at the technology itself. Do customers have a love-hate relationship with AI? For some, AI conjures up dystopian scenes from The Matrix, while others see a future that's more like The Jetsons. Recent research from Salesforce shows that customers are 9.5-times more likely to say AI is "revolutionary" than "insignificant."

While some see AI in a negative light, many have a brighter outlook. Among those surveyed in the Salesforce study, 67 percent of customers say they recognize the good that can come from AI, and 61 percent believe the technology presents positive opportunities for society.

Also: How to set realistic expectations for AI TechRepublic

In fact, customers have come to revere a variety of AI-powered technologies -- but they may not always recognize that AI powers those everyday experiences. AI tends to be associated with human substitutes like chatbots, when in fact it's more prevalent than many realize. Customers say they like/love capabilities like credit card fraud detection, email spam filters, and automatic reminders -- all of which use AI. More than half of customers have grown fond of voice-activated personal assistants like Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa.

Today, the human interaction with voice-enabled assistants is key to maintaining your company's brand promise, but in the coming decade, AI, including bots, will transform every aspect of business in every industry and job function. Studies have been conducted to gauge the efficiency and the future of chatbots. One example is how chatbots are transforming the marketing lead generation and sales process. In the latest study, 50 percent of consumer and business buyers said their experience was transformed by use of chatbots.


AI-Driven experiences are winning customers over

(Image: Salesforce Connected Customer Research 2018)

The changing expectations of consumers and business buyers is predicated on fast, intelligent, and personalized engagements with an accelerated shift toward voice as the new user interface.

Connected Experiences Can't Happen Without Trust

At CES this year, Kohler announced voice-command technology for the bathroom. The company said, "Consumers can operate the kitchen faucet, control features of an intelligent toilet, adjust the lighting embedded in a bathroom mirror, run an invigorating shower, and automatically fill a bath to a desired depth and temperature all by using simple voice-commands."

A connected bathroom may seem benign enough, but let's take a minute to break down the data points that are represented. First, there's the simple fact of knowing when a consumer is home. Then there's the data around what that consumer's morning and evening routines are -- wake time, bed time, personal hygiene habits, and so on. While a voice-command lighted mirror may be a nice feature, that consumer would need to have a considerable amount of trust built with Kohler before connecting the entire bathroom experience.

Also: Google releases AI tool to identify child sex abuse images online CNET

The State of the Connected Customer research, based on a survey of over 6,700 customers across the globe, noted that technology is setting the new benchmark for innovation, including adoption of emerging technologies like AI, voice-enabled devices, and digital assistants. Customers noted that their expectations for how companies interact with them are being transformed by mobile apps (77 percent), the Internet of Things (60 percent), cloud computing (68 percent), voice-activated assistants (59 percent), and chatbots (50 percent). The future of ambient computing, where users will engage with products and services using voice as the primary UI, will impact every industry. According to the report, customers are nearly 10-times more likely to view AI as revolutionary, versus insignificant. Seventy percent say that AI has transformed their expectations for how companies engage (or will transform expectations within two years). Connected bathrooms are only the start.

AI Drives Expectations Higher, But Trust Takes a Different Trajectory

While AI-driven experiences -- from smart thermostats to predictive alerts -- are winning customers over, there are nuances complicating the road ahead.

Behavioral scientist Dr. Susan Weinschenk offers some interesting insight around AI and trust. "A driverless car doesn't need to tell you what it's doing in order to make a decision," she said. "But for you to trust the car's decision, you need to understand what it's doing. You need that feedback. And the research is showing that if that feedback comes to you as a voice rather than just a visual display, you will trust it more. And if that voice has a name, you will trust it more again."

When customers in the Salesforce study were asked pointedly about AI as a technology, it raised plenty of eyebrows. Sixty percent of customers are concerned about their information being compromised because of AI. More to the heart of the matter, 54 percent of customers say they don't believe that companies operate with their best interests in mind. If your customers can't trust you to act in their favor, how can they trust your use of their data in AI systems?

Also: The AI, machine learning, and data science conundrum: Who will manage the algorithms?

To build trust, businesses must give their customers control over what information is collected, be transparent about how that information is used, and show commitment to protecting that information. There are other practices that are crucial to earning customer trust, but these are the top three.


Companies must foster trust in the data-value exchange

(Image: Salesforce Connected Customer Research 2018)

According to the research, a customer's loyalty to a company really boils down to their trust in that company. They need to trust that you have their best interests in mind, that you value them, that you'll deliver on your promises, and that you'll do so in a secure and respectful manner. So it's really nothing short of imperative to demonstrate that you're trustworthy. Research shows that customers trust companies with their data more when they:

  1. Explain how data improves their experiences (86 percent)
  2. Ask for permission to use data (88 percent)
  3. Are transparent about how data is used (91 percent)
  4. Give control over what data is collected (92 percent)

Trust Is a Business Imperative

Fostering trust isn't merely a moral objective -- it's a business imperative. Take the #DeleteFacebook backlash as an example, which came as a result of Facebook compromising users' data and losing trust. The Salesforce study finds 95 percent of customers say their trust in a company makes them more likely to be loyal to that brand. Among millennials and Gen Z, 91 percent say their trust in a company makes them more likely to share their experiences.

Also: How Trulia tackled machine learning challenges to build an in-house AI platform

All of the AI-driven experiences that get people talking are still in the formative years of the technology. When asked how AI is transforming their interactions with companies, only 14 percent of customers said AI has already transformed their expectations. But when asked about transformations happening now and over the next five years, that figure jumps to 72 percent.


Customers want personalized experiences powered by AI

(Image: Salesforce Connected Customer Research 2018)

Customers are willing to share relevant personal information in exchange for contextual interactions, personalized product recommendations, proactive service, personalized offers or discounts, simpler purchasing processes, and consultative help from experts. But most importantly, customers want to know that the companies that they do business with have trust as their most important core value and guiding principles. A company can build the most beautiful products and services and still lose to a competitor that is trusted more. In a digital economy that is powered by AI-enabled products and services, where every connected customer has more choices and voices that influence the buying process, establishing trust is key to sustainable growth and ultimately relevance.

Also: Tech vendors reap gains from IT spending, digital transformation surge

As more companies turn to AI to personalize and contextualize customer experiences, the data has to be there or the wheels fall off. My advice to business leaders is this: Start with trust and transparency. The data will follow.

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