The Conversational Gap Model – A Personal Journey to Conversational Commerce.

Many years ago a Chilean gentleman named Fernando Flores developed an interaction model that modelled workflows as conversations. At it’s core was the concept that there were four distinct phases to a conversation, but that in general, organisations did not model these phases accurately or with enough granularity. It was the breakdown in the integrity of the conversation between people that led to the breakdown in the business process because we were not being specific enough where we needed to be, and were probably being overly prescriptive where it didn’t matter to the ultimate delivery.

From the diagram above, some of you may recognise this way of thinking from your exposure to The Lean Start Up. It’s basically a methodology for running a discovery process.

I was very ready to be persuaded as to the usefulness of such methodologies after a three year masters in new product development processes and buyer supplier relationships in the automotive industry, a theory based on lean manufacturing and lean enterprise. My research involved disentangling the effects of good internal new product processes from the attributes of buyer supplier relationships. Foremost here was the importance of getting the design specification right up front, but not defined “too tight”, such that you lock out the expertise of the supplier. Many times, you defined the “outcome” such as “this switch must work in environmental temperatures ranging from -40 to +40. How you achieved this as the supplier, was up to you.

The relationship, communication and trust factors between the car company and it’s suppliers were then really important in guiding and steering through course of inevitable adjustments and adaptations. Getting to market in a much shorter development cycle time, and then iterating faster than the competition made Toyota a learning machine. The same factors are at play when people collaborate. We need to understand the nature of our relationship, we need a “common background of obviousness” in our communications, we need a history of interaction that has built a base of trust. Only then do we trust to iteration.

CEBP — Communications Enabled Business Processes

In 2003 Graham Brierton and I were co-founding team at a first generation SaaS company. We recognised that automated communications could be used to address the millions of “small interactions” between companies and their customers that could be better managed through more accurate preparation, negotiation, performance, and acceptance routines. With the rest of our team we identified a range of “lags and drags” in business processes, where if they could be handled more efficiently at scale, it would free up organisational resources. We saved companies millions of dollars. We won a global innovation award, national and European customer service awards, but yet, we felt that there were bigger “conversational problems” out there that we had not yet tapped. The problem was that we couldn’t “get to” the granular data that was locked in the enterprise, voice recognition wasn’t good enough at that stage, and there was still a chasm between the communications channels and the emerging, enterprise digital infrastructure. We could see all this potential “white space” in the enterprise, but there was no way of “wiring it all up”.

Martin Geddes — The ten conversation gaps

Around 7 years ago I was at a Future of Voice workshop run by Martin Geddes and Dean Bubley and the concept of “Conversation Gaps” was advanced. Again, this was an example of modelling out a typical process and demonstrating how telecommunication services could be used to remove friction, and help business processes complete more efficiently. I’m going to quote it in full.

  1. The cost gap: The difference in operational cost between human labour and an automated system is several orders of magnitude, and errors introduced by humans cascade into further cost.
  2. The confidentiality gap: Human beings are asked to handle sensitive data, and such data can leak.
  3. The customer experience gap: The customer’s time is wasted on tasks that do not create value. The ‘cost’ of the service to the user is the combination of its price, and the effort to use it; thus poor customer experience is a form of cost shifted on to the customer that reduces demand and willingness to pay.
  4. The capability gap: Our tools of conversation assume a one-size-fits-all and do not provide features reflect the diverse roles people adopt in their daily lives, and the different demands that arise as a result. For instance, a next-generation Caller ID would command different levels of caller information disclosure for each of ‘child’, ‘friend’, ‘customer’, and ‘stranger’.
  5. The co-presence gap. Ideally conversational media would provide parties with an experience as good as ‘being there’ together. If the conversation is locked into a narrow range of media types with weak interactivity, then it falls short of ‘being there’.
  6. The coverage gap: The ‘coverage’ is the range of situations in which the media make the conversation possible at all, despite ‘not being there’ together in the enterprise’s retail outlet. If a customer’s available modality of conversation is Skype, and the enterprise cannot originate or terminate Skype calls, then they cannot converse, and the enterprise loses business.
  7. The capacity gap: Each tool has to be able to scale to meet the needs of enterprise use. This is not just a question of networks scaling to accommodate load, but also of the user experience being able to scale to prioritise, filter and route an ever-rising number of requests for interaction.
  8. The conformance gap: The tools of conversation fail to meet the legal and social norms of each jurisdiction, and thus limit their use in commerce. The current controversy over encrypted BlackBerry messenger use that cannot be intercepted by the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and India is an example of this.
  9. The culture gap: Each society has different norms and historical associations with communications, such as Americans having a higher propensity to use voice compared to text-centric Europeans. What is acceptable and ordinary use of personal data in the USA is regarded as unethical in Germany, even if it conforms to legal constraints. Tools of conversation need to reflect these differences.
  10. The ‘cool’ gap: The other gaps address functional shortcomings of our tools of conversation. However, an increasing proportion of the value we receive from goods and services is provided by non-functional aesthetic and social value. People want to use communications services that make them feel and look good. If teens are tweeting and texting, then asking them to talk might as well be asking them to telex — it just isn’t going to happen.

Digital Conversations

Around 5 years ago, we noticed more widespread adoption of “customer journey”. The digital glue for this journey was going to be “social”, but at the customer level and at the organisation level (employees). Social didn’t turn out to be great for engaging and collaborating across all environments and businesses. Gaps were emerging between online digital and the traditional sets of communications tools at the contact centre. While there is still a great deal of promise in the community model of customer support there is little actual adoption of it.

My Personal Mobile Experiences

For me, three customer experiences seemed to be fascinating me, and seemed important.

(1) Instant, Visual, Services: Hailo was an app that I used a lot. I opened it, it found my location, showed me little icons of cabs, showed me arrival times. I hit one button, and I had booked a cab. The cab drivers were unfailingly polite, the journey route and choices were always explained to me in advance, and the bill was always so easy to deal with. I just stepped out of my car and caught my train. Why weren’t digital interactions with all companies this simple I thought?

(2) Private Social Networks: WhatsApp: I was speaking with a long time friend and former colleague who was running a small service company, entirely on WhatsApp. What I said? yeah, we open up different groups for each subject. Basically he was nearly able to run his business, and his customer interactions, from a mobile messenger app. combined with what I was already witnessing with the adoption of Slack, I could see a new assisted interaction paradigm emerging.

(3) Customer Empowerment: I was in a hospital and found that I had absolutely no record of my conversation, and no way to capture the record of my interaction with that hospital. There were many errors made, and the hospital was the only party to the interaction that was “allowed to keep the official record”. Why?

Conversational Commerce

The bridge between your communications and digital infrastructures turns out to be the Messaging app on your phone. If you could @ message a company and have them respond over Messenger, you save a lot of time, effort and frustration. I don’t have to look up my flight information because KLM not only shares my ticket with me in my Messenger, but also my updated gate number, and the time it will take me to get to my gate. The conversation is the service. When I want an Uber it can be summoned from within my Messenger. When I want a receipt it can be shared into our messenger conversation. When I want to remember what was said or agreed, I can scroll back in our conversation. I can absolutely see that in many professional services interactions I would want to keep a record of the preparation, the negotiation, the performance, and the acceptance stages of an interaction.

What we are sure about at Webio is that the future of interaction will use all the capabilities of mobile, from icons and emoji, to micro-sites and bio-metrics. It will us the camera and it will use augmented reality. It will use intelligent messaging, messenger apps, disposable apps, instant apps, sms, webrtc voice and video. The availability of this channels “everywhere” gives companies the ability to bridge many of the conversation gaps originally proposed by Martin Geddes.

Powerful Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) engines such as Tensorflow are also coming on stream at the same time as all these channels, bringing the possibility of predictive interaction to conversational interfaces. For simple, easy to formulate questions, for which there are simple, structured, easy to present response options conversational interfaces should be easy to implement. Where there are more complicated questions, that requires data from numerous enterprise applications, the ability to generate these response options is more difficult.

But, What’s So Interesting About This, Really?

Chatbots are the trojan horse for artificial intelligence products. They are really augmented conversations. They will start simple and small in places like customer service. What devices will do for us “automatically” is only in it’s infancy. Using image recognition on x-rays is one of the areas where A.I. assists doctors and behind that is the fact that A.I. is capable of keeping the alterntive diagnoses “in mind”, their potential interdependencies, and their risk weightings. While human experts may be right 95–99% of the time, A.I. is helping chase down that last 1–5% and weighting it for potential impact. If A.I. is assisting doctors in diagnosis, and assisting drivers to remain safe on the road, it is hard to think of an area that will remain untouched by A.I.

In 10 years, machines that help us keep these options in mind, and help us to better exercise our judgement will be the norm. Today we think that Google Assistant is pretty good at recognizing our voice search requests. We mostly think Siri is funny but not as good as Google. We really haven’t seen mixed reality solutions such as Hololens used in our day to day lives yet, but can you imagine going back to a world without Google Maps? Could the whole “on demand Economy” work without Google Maps? At the moment not really.

The conversational interface will be like maps of conversations. At first it helps us get from A. To B. Future generations of services will be built upon this this basic metaphor. If maps were about locations, their killer app was “step by step turn instructions”. It was about the navigation. So if our conversational interfaces are mostly about our “intents” what services will emerge based on these intents? What is our turn by turn navigation equivalent? What is the killer app for augmented conversations? For me, it’s personalization. Conversations are where we explore, create, define, and share our preferences. While these may start out being functional and factual preferences such as remembering our shoe size, and our color palette preferences, they may evolve into preferences that surprise us, that delight us. Spotify can play your favorite album all day long, but all anyone talks about is how amazing their Discovery Weekly playlist is. How many of us get up on a Monday morning and hit that first thing? It’s now “a thing” that many of us do on a Monday. What if we had our “banking conversation” on the first Monday of the month? What if we had a target of having at least “four hours of direct conversation with my child” every week? What would happen if there was some way to know that “25% of people you work with don’t seem to want to communicate with you”?

In an era of quantified communications, we will have augmented conversations, assisted by artificial intelligence that holds a repository of our preferences.