Customer Experience: A New Frontier for Intelligent Automation

By Simha Sadasiva, CEO and Co-Founder, Ushur

Automation and AI might be the two hottest technologies in the world right now. With adoption comes conversation, and lots of it. Our space is noisy, filled to the brim with intellectuality, excitement, hope, and big ideas. It can be challenging to stand out amongst the crowd. Predictably, the question founders and CEOs in our industry hear most often is, “How are you different?”

For many organizations, their differentiation is rooted in technology. Ours is rooted in the outcomes we intend to create. What’s truly unique about Ushur is our approach, and that begins with our origin story.

Ushur wasn’t the brainchild of PhD. technologists sequestered around a conference table, discussing the best ways to solve problems that our industry, in large part, creates. We saw end-users navigating through numerous portals, apps, and phone menus to get serviced. And we visualized a better experience that involved no friction for the end-customer – one that requires no apps to download nor portals to log into.

Ushur’s beginnings are as organic as they come, the indirect result of one of my favorite and longest-running personal hobbies. As a kid growing up in India, I loved music. I was a singer, trained in the South Indian style, and performed all throughout my formative years. At the same time, I became fascinated by the concept of America. I dreamt of pursuing higher education in the United States, but I came from a modest family and the possibility was simply out of the question. Instead, I went to university near home and eventually made my way stateside as a tech consultant.

Once I’d settled in, I sought out music once again. I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream by learning to play guitar, and through those lessons was introduced to a community of other musicians. One invited me and my family to a show at a fairly large venue. I showed up with a few unexpected extra guests in tow, my tickets presumably at will call, with no idea where to go. One of many ushers working the event clocked our confused faces, walked up to us, and proceeded to take care of literally everything — extra tickets, directions to our seats, bathroom requests, coat check, you name it. What had started out as a slightly stressful social situation had turned into one of the smoothest and most pleasant customer experiences of my life. That was the moment of Ushur’s conception.

Small but meaningful transactions like these, that enhance an experience or an outing or a night with your family, are something I think we miss at a societal level. They could almost be considered “20th-century” amenities. The digital world simply holds too much promise to ignore, and so a disproportionate amount of our innovative efforts are poured into that realm. The process of replacing personal interactions with early iterations of automation was never going to be silky smooth, and it hasn’t been. But it does need to get better. We need intelligent automation.

How did the modern customer evolve?

There has been much discussion amongst business leaders today about digital transformation and the fourth industrial revolution, and for good reason. It’s happening now, we are experiencing it firsthand and, in many cases, driving it with our actions. But from a customer perspective, I think the history of human commerce can be more accurately broken down into three distinct eras — personal production, mass production, and mass personalization.

Personal production represents most of humanity’s time on earth. Goods and services were highly localized, highly personalized, and produced on a small scale. Distribution was limited to walking or riding distance in most cases, and consumer expectations were dictated by reality. Then, the Industrial Revolution changed how we think about production, distribution, and scale forever. For the first time, humanity was not confined by what a human could produce, and there were almost no limitations on where goods could be shipped. In this second era, personalization went by the wayside and mass production ruled the day. It didn’t bother anyone that they all owned the same car in the same color — that wasn’t the value proposition. The value proposition was personal freedom at an attainable price.

Today, we are situated somewhat uncomfortably in that third era. These are uncharted waters — a consumer base that expects and demands highly personalized experiences, but at a global scale. We have more information about the ways people behave than ever before, and the promise that information holds informs — perhaps even inflates — our expectations. But the reality is, most existing implementations of automation and AI simply aren’t as sophisticated as the consumer.

An example I use often is the self-checkout at grocery stores. We’ve all had the experience of getting into self-checkout with a handful of items, certain it’s a better alternative to waiting in a long check stand line, only to find that a barcode doesn’t scan, or the bagging area is overly sensitive, or that we can’t find an item in the system. Maybe we’re buying wine or beer, and have to wait for an employee to come to check our ID. Suddenly, it’s taking longer than the normal line. This experience frustrates people, because it’s a half measure that makes their lives more complex instead of simpler. But that simply doesn’t work, because the core value proposition is simplicity. Most current implementations of automation are just not ready for prime time, and customers know that the moment they start to engage.

To fulfill its true promise, automation has to provide an experiences customers already largely expect.

The future is coming, there’s no need to rush it.

Apple disrupted the music industry with iTunes and the iPod, which enabled consumers to carry all of their music on the go in a pocket-sized device. Then, they combined an iPod, an internet surfing device, and a phone into a single device called the iPhone. Imagine if Apple had not created iTunes or the iPod prior to launching the iPhone. Do you think the iPhone would have been so immediately successful?

Today, most customer engagement solutions are in the pre-iTunes phase. Just like there were phones with QWERTY keyboards that you were stuck with – irrespective of whether you were browsing or you were typing an email. Enterprises today are stuck having to choose between big clunky AI solutions and legacy solutions for automating business processes. Or, they have to work with a standalone customer experience stack. We saw a need to leapfrog this legacy setup by combining knowledge work automation, AI, and Cx in one platform. We devised a “No-Code” approach to orchestrating the entire customer experience to make it as easy as using an iPhone.

Consumers drive the adoption of technology, not the other way around. Many modern organizations seem to have forgotten that fact. Too many businesses today have attempted to shoehorn early automation into the middle of their most critical function — customer engagement. This is destined to create a negative relationship between consumers and the market. We can’t ask customers to suffer through a worse experience than they’re used to while we work on a better one than they’re used to. At least, not if we hope to keep them around.

Early versions of anything are hard to create, and it takes brave people to act as the tip of the spear. But the early days of AI and automation are over. Those who were first to the table have already finished off the appetizers. The focus of innovators and creators today should be on the main course — creating an experience that is exponentially better, not just different. Again, Apple’s iPod comes to mind. It came out shortly after mini disc players, a technology that was different from CDs, sure, but not much better. How many people do you know who still own a mini-disc player, or ever even bought one? Consumers either lose faith in technologies that are rushed to market without enough forethought about the experience they provide, or they simply ignore them.

This dynamic is unfolding in front of our eyes today, in the world of social media. That industry has entered phase “2.0” of its existence, and the companies that are succeeding today look quite different than those that broke initial ground. The first wave of social media platforms — Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter — provided a consumer experience that said, “Share your whole life here.” Not much consideration was given to how profoundly this would change the way we exchange and digest information. New environments were created, arguably without enough critical thought. Over time, these platforms have morphed into breeding grounds for misinformation, organizational agendas, and negative interactions. Adoption among young consumers has dropped off a cliff. Meanwhile, platforms that offer consumers a place to show a smaller slice of their lives, like Instagram and TikTok, have thrived. Strategy tends to outcompete speed in the long run.

When we founded Ushur, our approach was meticulous. We didn’t take any institutional funding for the first few years of our existence. We wanted to optimize for building the right product for the right customer base, to create an unfair advantage for our clients and a sticky business for us. It’s how we measure success at every stage.

Today, we’re still in the bottom of the first inning. We’ve established the outcomes we want to achieve, and use that as a roadmap for the technology to follow. We have a clear vision for what to offer the end-customer, and how the experience needs to make them feel. We hide all the complexity of powerful technologies like AI and Intelligent Automation under the hood. We know that without incorporating the elements of human touch that first created commerce, we can’t hope to be its future. And that, I think, is what makes us different.