Taking ‘location, location, location’ out of retail

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Clickatell co-founder and CEO Pieter de Villiers.
Clickatell co-founder and CEO Pieter de Villiers.

Back in the day, our ability to communicate with someone was dependent on location.

“It used to be all about places. We engaged with places. If someone called your home phone number, any of your family members could answer the call. So, there was no real personalisation,” noted Clickatell co-founder and CEO Pieter de Villiers.

Speaking at an event hosted during AfricaCom 2019 in Cape Town this week, De Villiers shared his insights around how our communication with each other, with governments and with businesses has changed.

It is no longer about the “where”; today it’s all about the “who”, he explained, stressing the importance of personalisation.

Consumer-facing brands can no longer just market to broad groups of people. As such, they have to rethink how they engage with existing and potential customers. “This puts the burden on the brand to think of individuals, not cohorts. In line with this, consumers no longer come to brands. Brands need to meet customers where they are.”


At a McKinsey event a few months ago, De Villiers predicted every major brand in SA – be it in the insurance, banking or retail space – will be using some sort of chat platform or some iteration of chat functionality to interact with their customers within the next year.

According to De Villiers, chat commerce and chat banking will forever change the way business is done on the African continent, but getting it right demands that engagement between brands and consumers gets real simple, real fast.

Brett King, banking futurist and author, shares this sentiment. Unpacking the history of chat and messaging services, he explained the problem with chatbots and chat services is that many of these interactions aren’t actually conversations.

The chat functionality of the past was less of a dialogue and more of a search engine where customers can look for information, said King. But advancements in natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI) are changing this, especially if the conversation is in context.

For example, if a banking customer is engaging with a bot and it has been trained to understand that particular frame of reference – in this case, banking – the bots are exceptionally accurate. But modern chatbots still aren’t geared to handle any type of conversations just yet, King noted.

“We have chatbots that are great at banking or healthcare or helping you fix an issue with your mobile phone but only once we’ve aggregated all of this into a single bot will we be able to deliver true conversational AI that feels just like speaking to a human.”

So when can we expect this? According to King, sooner than you think. He predicts we should experience this level of chatbot functionality by the end of the next decade.

“We’ve literally been working on this for 50 years,” noted King. “But we’ve only really made progress in the last decade or so. Why? Because innovations like AI and NLP have enabled an enormous leap in how we train this technology and, ultimately, what we can do with it.”

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