Today's car shoppers might find it perfectly normal to ask Siri for driving directions to their local dealership. Some of them are just as comfortable using an AI assistant for more complicated car-buying questions, perhaps without even knowing that the email, chat or voice conversation they're having is not with a real person.
Artificial intelligence has become a staple at U.S. dealerships. Often, it takes the form of chatbots, software programs that conduct instant-messaging conversations with Web visitors. Some dealerships even give their AI personas names and "assistant" titles, which has led to people coming in and asking to speak to these virtual beings.
David Kain, president of Kain Automotive, a dealership training company, says these virtual assistants work best when they communicate with customers via text messages or email, since customers are still wary of voice assistants. The virtual assistants that help the most are those used to handle tasks that salespeople don't have the time or the energy to do, such as following up on leads.
"One thing that we love about AI is that it won't give up," he said. "In the real world, a human sends you an email or two, and then they get emotionally disconnected. AI could care less about your emotions and they're not going to judge your interest level. They're just going to keep tapping you on the shoulder."
Virtual assistants can do more than pick up some slack. They can also be more effective than human salespeople, Kain said. His research shows that the open rate for dealership-to-consumer emails is only about 25 percent. A well-constructed virtual assistant, one that uses features such as rolling IP addresses, will have open rates closer to 40 percent.
"That gives you a nice uptick, just in open rates," he said. "When you have higher open rates, you have higher response rates if the wording was good."
One of the foremost dealership AI companies is Conversica. Its Emma AI assistant is enabled at 1,300 dealerships in the U.S.
Don Crawford, senior director of major accounts, said the Conversica software is better than its competitors at understanding intent and "convoluted double-negative paragraphs."
By using more than seven years of data, which includes thousands of customer email responses, Conversica is able to determine whether it can answer a question or if it needs to prompt an employee for further action. "If Conversica recognizes that the person has an issue, she will escalate it to a service manager," he said.
The software speaks English and Spanish, and each dealership is able to assign its own name. Conversica is so good, Crawford said, most customers never recognize that they're talking to a bot.
"They thank her, they apologize, they appreciate," he said. "What makes her real is her ability to use her own words and feelings to get the action we want or try to elicit out of clients."
Despite the authentic feeling that software such as Conversica's can offer, successful dealerships know when to blend AI and the human touch to get results, Kain said.
"AI without HI [human intelligence] is not very effective," he said.