/ Leader guide

AI & bots - A guide for business leaders: Part 2 - The technologies

What technology exists, what and who is it for?

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In the context of bots –AI represents a means of responding within a conversational message flow (or dialogue) that is either an addition to or an alternative for search and filter: intended to give a more focussed answer to a question or requirement. AI should be considered the central technology.

Some purists consider certain bots are not AI– but remember AI is merely the name for a machine taking a series of learnt facts or rules and applying these to a situation to define an outcome. What matters is how suitable the AI engine is for the purpose to which it is to be put. There is no better or worse AI engine, but there are more or less suitable ones for a given purpose.

Natural Language Processing (NLP)

NLP is a mechanism of taking the actual words used by a person and ascribing a defined semantic meaning or intent to the words, which may or may not be a literal interpretation. The first key benefit of NLP is that its use should feel natural – use your own words to describe what you want. The second key benefit is that it can be used in many situations – in fact pretty much any form of verbal media – but most typically in written messaging media such as instant messaging, live chat or email.

NLP is best used for handling a narrow range of requests even though you can ask in many ways. For SME this is a really key point – you need to be doing the same thing many times for NLP to really work for you. The alternative of prompt based approaches are undoubtedly more accurate and might be worth considering.

Conversational Commerce (CC)

NLP brings us nicely to CC. The big hype about CC is because consumers are moving. Less time is now spent in apps (which are typically downloaded but only used once) and more time (now the majority) in messaging platforms. Instead of doing something in an app, or broadcasting using a medium such as Twitter, people are spending much more time in dialogue person to person or in a group.

Conversational commerce is therefore critically important to those that want to get access to consumer time and attention.

However, there are some qualifiers as to who should be interested. First up – are you selling direct to consumers or are you selling to businesses. Second – is it really practical to market and sell your product without reference to some form of catalogue or menu?


CC is often confused with mobile. Mobile merely reflects the device that your content is being accessed from. Granted the phone is the ‘first screen’ for personal use for most. But that’s just the point. For personal use. Before you get into mobile, understand the nature of your addressable market, and if it's B2B when is your prime selling time? A user at work in an office for example is better reached through a desktop or laptop. What other applications are they using (including browser accessed, cloud based services)?

Probabilistic approaches, decision tress and rules

Let's move on to the approach of finding an answer (or even deciphering the question). Probabilistic approaches work well when there are many hundreds or thousands of repetitions of very similar transactions. Fed with a history of incidents, this approach can fairly accurately derive a response.

However, if your business sells the same product twice a day you may be better served looking elsewhere. If there are limited number of branches to a decision tree this could well be a good option to pursue. It is likely that the training might be laborious, but the outcome will be highly predictable – great for regulated industries.

The last main alternative is a happy medium: the rules based system. These are just what they say: teach the rules and let it handle the enquiry in the most optimised manner.

Delivery method###

So to draw things together – let us consider the delivery method of these technologies: bots, chatbots and virtual agents. Most solutions will derive an intelligent agent through a combination of:

  • Approach: predictive, decision tree or rules based responses
  • Input method: natural language or prompt based systems
  • Delivery method: messaging platform or app based delivery

There is no right or wrong combination. One size definitely does not fit all. But given the nature of your own business, product type and customer base, some options will definitely be better than others.