Will Phone Calls Survive the Chatbot Apocalypse?

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Vintage telephones

I’ve always said that that even in a digital age, a 180-year old analog technology has thrived: phone calls. This has sociological ties, in the need to use voice for personal communication. But is also has practical ties to commerce, especially in complex categories like cars.

Call volume has actually increased under a digital regime, given that the past decade’s centerpiece for innovation — the smartphone — is primarily a phone. Despite Facebook’s dominance in third-party apps, under-recognized app popularity is held mostly by “phone.”

But the question is if phone calls can sustain this position over the next decade. Is voice a universal enough medium to withstand an AI onslaught? The elephant in conference rooms throughout the call commerce world is today’s hottest tech topic: chatbots.

When I say call commerce, I mean the industry that drives, tracks and analyzes phone leads to businesses. It includes everything from Google call buttons (extensions) to downstream technology that scores leads, improves call centers, and informs marketing.

Meanwhile, as I wrote last month, chatbots are riding the wave of messaging apps to automate communication with businesses. Also known as conversational commerce, it can be applied to everything from inquiries, to ordering products to scheduling appointments.

But the trillion dollar question is if this emerging technology will annihilate the phone call. Though I’m bullish on messaging and chatbots, the answer to that question is likely no. Like the smartphone itself, chatbots could actually drive more calls.

For example, when chatbots can’t fulfill a request they’ll hand off to a live agent. And this will happen often, given AI’s limitations and live speech processing blunders (in cases of spoken commands). It’ll be the new “damn you auto correct,” as I’ve predicted in jest.

In fact, in all the ways that AI impacts call commerce, there’s more support than threat. Machine learning is creating ways to identify call context through voice processing, make qualitative assessments, and iterate marketing. It’s what I like to call “big voice.”

But the other elephant in the room is millennials. Here we see a pattern of public misconception born from link bait media coverage. Despite common wisdom, they are actually owning cars and have a capacity for work ethic. And guess what” they’re calling businesses.

“We looked at our data to see that Millennials are actually more likely to click-to-call from a mobile ad unit than any other age group,” Marchex’s John Busby told me. “I didn’t believe it so we tested it on another company and another company then our entire data set.”

Chatbots will still have an impact though — it would be naive to think otherwise. But any call volume reduction will likely happen at the low end, such as calls for directions or hours of operation. The result could be elevated value for now-scarcer high-intent calls.

Chatbots will also cut into lower-value verticals where simple requests can be processed automatically — restaurant reservations, salon appointments and e-commerce. In fact, in Facebook’s recent chatbot parade, the shining example chatbot glory was… ordering flowers.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but calls will still happen for complex items. And complexity happens most in high-consideration areas where big-ticket items mean premium leads. We’re talking telecom (cell contract), financial services (insurance policy), and again… cars.

What this all comes down to is that context is king. I’m a fan of chatbots, but in many situations we’ll need human intervention (maybe not Comcast though). We’ll still want to press 0, scream “AGENT!” into the phone… or whatever the chatbot equivalent will be.

Michael BolandMichael Boland is chief analyst and vice president of content at BIA/Kelsey. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at Localogy.com