Brands and Bots

Robert Stephens doesn’t enjoy doing things by the book. He dreamed up his first venture, Geek Squad, while riding a bike in a Minnesota winter (the same week that Marc Andreessen started Netscape). It sounds quaint now, but in 1994 the idea of providing computer help for average consumers was pretty odd.

By many measures Stephens’ new venture, Assist, is also pretty odd: the company is working to build a future where customers “never have to wait on hold”—and where they can accomplish any business interaction with bots and AI.

Stephens joined BBI board member Justin De Graaf on stage to discuss the future of automated commerce and care, and to share some of the wisdom he learned from Geek Squad—including the ten years he spent at Best Buy after his company was acquired.


So what’s on Stephens mind now?

  1. “Be happy bots are sh***y!” That means now’s the perfect time to work on them.
    In 2017, industry outsiders may find bots irrelevant or annoying; industry insiders might find bots limited in use and flexibility. According to Stephens: it’s okay if Machine Learning is more like “meh-chine” learning; that means it’s prime time for innovation.

    “We have a chance to kill the call center,” said Stephens. “That’s why we’re here!”

  2. When you collect data or feedback from customers, prove to them you’re using it
    In Stephens’ mind, one of the most empowering and freeing experiences of the early internet was package tracking—by equalizing information distribution between the customer and delivery companies, companies like FedEx could increase consumer trust.

    Stephens thinks bots can build a similar type of trust by providing data back to consumers, instead of just asking and then disappearing. For example, asking for product feedback? Tell customers when their comments were read, by whom, and what the company is going to do with it.

    In chatbot experiences, conversations should allow for the AI to acknowledge confusion and defer to the customer to put them in control. For example, a simple “I’m not sure if this is what you want, can you choose from these two options” can deliver a huge improvement in customer experience.

  3. Bots are the expression of a messaging platform’s API combined with the brand platform, so “make sure your brand platform cares about something!”
    The ability for a bot to conduct a transaction or provide customer service is limited by both a given messaging platform, as well as a company’s infrastructure. But Stephens’ firmly believes that one of the most important factors is non technical: a brand’s platform: the personality and passions that make it unique.

    Stephens believes this is particularly important with commodities. For example, if a consumer uses a chatbot on a messaging platform—like Twitter DMs, Facebook messenger, or Line—to order both an Uber and a Lyft, how will those experiences feel differentiated?

  4. The biggest predictor of innovation: “the curiosity quotient”
    During Stephens time at both Geek Squad and Best Buy, he found that the best quality in executives was the “curiosity quotient,” or how much people have a natural interest in their work and business. Stephens found, especially in corporate settings, that the quality of curiosity was more effective than any internal advocates for innovation, or external business threats that suggest an enterprise should change.

    For people who want to encourage their companies to invest in bots and AI, finding those with natural curiosity is going to be the best way forward.

    So choose your colleagues carefully! “The curiosity quotient,” Stephens said, “I don’t think you can create that in people. They just have it.”


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