There was a bit of a to-do back in 2013 as the press speculated on the potential for robotics, powered by artificial intelligence ("AI"), to replace human salespeople. Three years down the line, are robots any closer to performing customer service and sales tasks?

Developing better AI for customer service

AI expert Dmitry Askenov, founder of DigitalGenius (formerly London Brand Management), was interviewed by The Telegraph in 2013 to discuss the state of the art. DigitalGenius provides AI to large organisations including BMW, Unilever and the NHS that answers queries sent in by customers and end users. Customer emails and texts sent to the AI service receive a workable answer five seconds later, obviating wait times and bottlenecks; the system doesn’t mind how many queries come in at once. Backed by investors from Silicon Valley, New York and London, the company’s service has developed into a clever customer service product over the last few years. Speaking to TechCrunch earlier this year, Mr Askenov described their platform as ‘the best of human and machine intelligence in a seamless customer service experience.’

Challenges for automated telephone services

The example of DigitalGenius demonstrates nicely how useful AI can be to retail and customer service, but there are still plenty of barriers to replacing human salespeople. Many businesses have tested AI with automated telephone lines, designing services to answer customer questions and direct calls and reducing the need for telesales staff. The problem, as Geoffrey James at Inc. explains, is that they rely on language processing and voice recognition software that is really still in its infancy. It is not accurate enough to provide a consistent level of service, unlike a human being.

How can salespeople keep their roles relevant?

The interactions we have with AI are still rather different to those we have with human beings. Recognising this fact, Fast Company believes that businesses can capitalise on it to retain sales staff and provide a level of service that AI cannot. By embracing omni-channel sales and service with a presence across all platforms including mobile and social media, and by making sure customers have access to your sales team through their favourite channels, they are more likely to get in touch.

Human interaction is still valued by customers

For now, AI can take on the burden of simple sales and service questions, but there is a long way to go before it replaces salespeople. So many of us still value human interaction at some level, whether it is in person at the store or over email or telephone.

Still, the future moves on. Silicon Valley’s Conversica relies on AI to transform leads into actionable sales, a process that is always running because the AI, which appears to leads as an actual person, doesn’t go home. ‘No benefits, no time off, no sick leave,’ writes CEO Alex Terry, ‘and a total workaholic putting in as many hours and as many days as you choose. No complaints over working the early or late shifts here. And HR will love you.’