Are bots going to kill your business?

Bots may sound like fun, but they will force businesses to think about how to deliver customer value.

In order to provide services more seamlessly than ever before, Facebook, Google, Amazon and many others are experimenting with bots.

Bots are the new butlers

Ask a bot anything, and it will give an answer or provide a service based on its user's historic preferences, current context and requirements. You can try out Amazon's Echo in your browser to get a feel for it.

Gone are the days of searching for a product or service. Just ask your bot to remind you to take out the trash, order a pizza or book a flight.

Bots make your brand less visible

The result is that the underlying service provider is a lot less visible to the end user. In the examples above, that could be rememberthemilk, or Brussels Airlines, but it could also have been completely different service providers. In many cases, it's not unthinkable users won't even care about the service provider and its brand.

This erosion of brand value poses a challenge for marketers. If you're lucky (or have invested a lot) and brand preference is very strong, the user will ask his bot to use a specific brand's service.

But in all other cases, the brand chosen is left at the mercy of the bot (or rather: the platform operator). Its decision on what service to call on will primarily be made on how well it can assist its user through that service.

Bots don't care about brands, they care about services

When bots -- and by extension, its users -- attach less and less value to the brand in and of itself, marketing becomes a question of availability and quality of service.

Much like Byron Sharp posited in How Brands Grow (2010), the only thing that makes a brand succesful is mental and physical availability. In other words, success means making sure that customers are thinking of you and that you are available to them whenever they think about you.

Bots make us realise that anyone and anything can be a customer: an algorithm, but any other kind of intermediary (human or not, think of the Internet of Things for example) can add value to a  service.

Intermediaries such as bots are part of a network that creates value for the end customer

This network of intermediaries craves availability. New layers of interactivity such as websites or apps do not help them. Availability requires a move in the opposite direction.

In order to stay relevant to the network, businesses will have to open up to all kinds of actors. This increase in transparency can only be realised by allowing tight integration with back-office processes. 

Businesses must be ready to become fully transparent in order to stay relevant to the customer, whoever or whatever that may be

The development and marketing of access to back-office processes is a requirement for improved relevance to the network. API's (Application Programming Interfaces) that allow any kind of customer to consume and interact with a business will quickly become a basic expectation.

For some businesses, this will require a shift in thinking from a supply-based and inside-out perspective to the realisation that they are part of a demand-based economy where everything and everyone are connected. 

Businesses who are ready to tear down their (virtual) walls will become the network's preferred partners

Companies who stick to supply-based thinking will be forced to spend more and more marketing money on shouting about their own relevance (without actually providing the services to prove it). They'll have an increasingly hard time reaching their end customers; they will become an island, less and less connected to the network.

Businesses who on the other hand realise they are part of a demand-based ecosystem will embrace these new opportunities for value creation offered by their human and digital intermediaries and customers.

They will start investing in maximising their availability to these customers through more and better digital services, based on API's that render their back-office processes more transparent and usable. This will increase their relevance to the network and their end customers, leading to further growth and improved competitive positioning.

These businesses will realise sustainable growth partly because they will be marketing to bots. Who'd have believed that a few years ago?

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