The hot topic of Summer 2018 is undoubtedly Artificial Intelligence (AI). Wherever you look there are new takes on how AI is going to impact business and it can be hard to take on board some of the predictions that are being made. For instance, Gartner is on record as saying that by 2020, businesses will manage 85% of their relationships without any human interaction. Today, accounting and other professional services firms can already improve the client experience with ‘virtual assistants.’
In our conversations with accountants, AI can be too easily dismissed as not relevant to their practices but when we explain how chatbots will work, it’s as if the light bulb comes on and they can start to visualize the benefits.
Apps are getting the AI treatment
Imagine having a new staff member who never takes a day off for illness, never needs a holiday, and will never hand in their notice. Immediately, faces light up. Communicating with chatbots works exactly as if you were messaging a friend, and the technology is there for chatbots to evolve and become intelligent virtual assistants that can perform a highly useful role within today’s accountancy practices.
Over the last year, we have been working with Amazon Lex, which offers developers the same deep learning technologies that power Amazon Alexa. This is allowing us to build sophisticated, natural language, conversational bots to work with our Apps. This represents an exciting opportunity, we believe, for practices to generate considerable cost savings by automating some tasks that have, until now, required a staff member to carry out.
Not Just About Cost Reduction
The appeal of AI is not restricted to cost reduction. There are other real benefits including improving the client experience and eliminating the Google threat. We have long talked about the Google effect and how this poses a real threat to accountants, since clients may often find it quicker and easier to Google a question as opposed to asking their accountant — even assuming you were available 24 hours a day for them.
AI has the potential to change this and for accountants to offer a 24 hour, 365 days a year service that is manned by Virtual Assistants that can run help desks as well as help with scheduling appointments and other administrative tasks. This frees up the time of administrative staff to focus on higher value-add services, and may help employees warm to their fellow chatbot — as they will see them as a virtual friend that is enabling them to get on with more thoughtful work.
Natural Synergy for AI Within Accounting Practices
While we do not agree that Chatbots are the new Apps, as Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella said earlier this year, we do see them working closely with Apps and providing interaction with tasks performed within the App, such as with the calculators. Following a careful analysis of its needs, the potential uses for AI technologies, and their business value, we see a natural synergy for AI within the practice environment.
And in the first alpha launch of our own Virtual Assistant, basic voice and text conversations will help to deliver a heightened client experience and, over time, this will be enhanced to become even more intelligent and to deliver better interaction with clients. As we enter an age of conversational commerce, AI techniques will be used to improve client interactions, eliminate wait times, and provide greater in-depth expertise. All of which will help boost client retention and differentiate the practice.
It may well be that, further in the future, there will be a dedicated chatbot tailored for each client, making them far more personalized, since the intelligent systems driving them know all about the person they are helping. They know their language, the services they require, and their preferences, and — used in the right way — can help to make clients relationships truly “sticky.”
The move to AI technologies has been brisk, as demonstrated by the fact that in 2016 the term “artificial intelligence” did not even appear in the top 100 search terms on gartner.com. By May 2017, the term ranked at No. 7 and Gartner predicts that by 2020, AI will be a top-five investment priority for more than 30 percent of CIOs.
The level of automation that AI can bring to a firm will undoubtedly drive great efficiencies and present accountants with new opportunities to add value to clients. The pace of technological change can be daunting, but the key is to remain open to new introductions that have been carefully developed by those working with the profession and to evaluate their ability to strengthen firms while at the same time helping to make cost reductions and improve efficiency.