Amy Hawkins, a freelance journalist based out of China, walked into one of KFC’s outlets in a financial district of Beijing and stood in front of a swanky digital interface where her face got scanned. 

That was not a regular KFC outlet. The system recognized Hawkins as a ‘beautiful female’ in her ‘30s,’ which she said was a decade off; nonetheless, the system smartly suggested a breakfast of crispy chicken hamburgers. 

That was KFC’s AI-based ordering carousel in Beijing implemented in partnership with Baidu – China’s Google – and it offered automated ordering via AI-based facial recognition. Users just needed to stand in front of the display, get themselves scanned, and the machine would suggest meals based on age, gender, day, and even mood. 

For instance, the system would recommend a consumer in her 50s “porridge and soybean milk for breakfast”. In comparison, a man in his early 20s would be recommended “crispy chicken hamburger, roasted chicken wings, and coke,” and the likes, according to a Baidu news release.

Users could also edit the suggestions before finally paying their orders using the Alipay app. Hit or no-hit, we can’t disagree with the level of technology behind it. 

KFC-Baidu backed the system to get better with time, and someday they’ll be able to offer a more personalized automated ordering experience in its 5000-strong Chinese restaurant network. 

That was about 2017, and it was more of an ahead-of-time experiment. But in 2021, such technologies are going mainstream, thanks to the worst pandemic of the century that has disrupted labor markets globally

In economic terms, the physical labor (jobs that require proximity) market is facing a ‘shadow cost.’ This shadow cost is the financial equivalent of all expenditures related to increased disease transmission risk, including the price of COVID-19 modifications.

From concerns of worker safety to the rush to keep up with the surge in consumer demands, the need for increased automation and AI technologies has become evident – research after research has said. 

So how is this piece of tech faring for the future? Read on:

How COVID-19 Accelerated the Digital Transformation

Digital transformation was already underway at a very rapid scale in the last decade. McKinsey says the pandemic-induced economic downturn and market disruptions have fast-forwarded the digital transformations by many years.

According to the new McKinsey Global Survey of executives, their organizations have advanced the digitalization of their customer and supply-chain contacts, as well as their internal operations, by three to four years. In addition, the proportion of digital or digitally-enabled items in their portfolios has advanced by a startling seven years.

Not only businesses but consumers across the globe have also dramatically moved to online channels of business transactions. For example, in most nations, online orders for food and household products have grown by more than 30%

The pandemic caused a clear deceleration in economic activity. Still, one positive impact within this has been an uptake in digital consumption emerging from the need for much activity to move online.

Moreover, the pandemic has pushed forth digital transformations in various industries, especially in e-commerce and fintech. As consumers shop and pay online, digital platforms scramble to meet the growing global demand.

On one hand, we have a growing consumer demand which is great for companies. But on the other, we face an acute, pandemic-induced labor shortage that is crippling businesses. A lack of workers worst hits companies that have not boarded the digitalization train.

In such situations, AI unfolds a perfect blueprint for businesses with labor shortages to mitigate these threats. 

Acute Labor Shortage and the Need For AI

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Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic gave an unprecedented blow to the global economy, firing tens of millions of people out of work and displacing many others; the job market will never be the same. 

Thousands of trained workers were grounded in the wrong places. Others have retired early and are cynical about getting back to work amidst lingering health concerns and overall uncertainty.

In the United States alone, roughly 4 million people quit their jobs in April, including around 650,000 retail workers. In addition, a recent EY report suggested that more than 50% of employees considered ditching their position after the pandemic if they weren’t given enough flexibility on where and when they work.

In April 2021, the United States saw a record 9.3 million job openings. The United Kingdom reported advertised job openings to spike 45% between the end of March and mid-June. Firms across the European Union suffered from labor shortages as business activity piled up at the fastest pace in 15 years. The labor shortage is evident globally. 

Understanding the ‘Why’

There are several reasons why businesses couldn’t find workers to fill open jobs. But one reason was pretty straightforward: there was a location mismatch. The pandemic caused a mass movement of people who left cities as jobs were cut and the cost of living skyrocketed.

The uneven pace of easing lockdown restrictions inspired some workers to move to new places like Austria and Switzerland, where businesses reopened much earlier. 

Moreover, the pandemic fostered more significant changes in the labor market, as workers reconsider what types of jobs they want — and on what terms. That caused a reallocation of workers and could have long-term consequences across industries.

The Need for AI

Today, AI seems to be the savior. It is not replacing humans but enhancing the same but AI leads organizations to realize that the human plus machine shift will require them to break and restructure the tradition of jobs and customer service concepts. 

Initially viewed as early adopter technologies only affordable to e-commerce giants, artificial intelligence and robotics are now considered mainstream and will grow in use and popularity. 

In addition, technology continues to improve, and costs have come down, making AI and other automation systems feasible even for smaller and middle-sized companies. 

Historically, businesses have controlled costs and mitigated uncertainty during recessions by adopting automation and redesigning work processes, which reduce the share of jobs involving mainly routine tasks. 

For example, many companies have deployed AI and automation in warehouses, call centers, and manufacturing plants to decrease workplace density and muddle through surges in demand.

To AI or not to AI is NOT a Question!

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Today, tech industry leaders are dubious about mitigating financial and operational risks while investing in innovation to succeed in the long run. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) ranks the highest atop the list of technologies and is expected to cause the most significant disruption in the industry shortly. Back to our question: To AI or not AI. We don’t have a choice; we must AI. 

According to Appen’s State of AI 2021 Report, organizations of all sizes have increased their AI plans during COVID-19 last year, which will be carried forward in 2021.

The same report in 2020 boldly stated that pandemic had been an advancer rather than a setback in technology. And in 2021 that remains true. 

After all, they don’t say AI (along with IoT and robotics) will usher in the  Fourth Industrial Revolution for no reason! 

AI technologies are changing the way we live and work. From public spaces to bedrooms, chat rooms to boardrooms, AI is influencing consumer behavior and business operations across the globe. 

For companies adopting the technology constructively, AI improves efficiency, builds competitive advantages, and brings cost savings. Thus, the onus is on business leaders to find and explore the business case for AI.

AI is here to stay and redefine the way we progress into the new normal. Here are a few ways AI is helping businesses scale while tackling the labor shortage:

  • Redefining customer experiences
  • Augmenting supply chain
  • Boosting revenue growth

Below is a detailed look into the above-mentioned ways AI can redefine:

AI is redefining customer experiences with data and analytics-driven solutions

AI gives voice to a lot of businesses, building customer relationships like never before. It is boosting the productivity of human agents with the support of virtual agents and automated processes across channels. It is delivering timely, conversational, and personalized interactions based on context and customer intent. 

AI is augmenting the supply chain to higher levels of efficiency

Eighty percent of supply chain professionals anticipate more significant investments in AI and automation by their companies in the next ten years, and 88% say they will be more dependent on automation and robotics shortly. 

Powered by advanced analytics, cognitive insight (CI), and machine learning (ML), AI helps companies increase visibility within and across all supply chain functions to create a consumer-driven, integrated operating model that guarantees more productivity, clarity, and agility. 

AI delivers data-driven insights across the supply chain network, improving accuracy in forecasting and decision-making. Most importantly, AI helps automate real-time flagging and resolution problems across the supply chain to avoid costly complexities.

AI is boosting revenue growth across industries.

The power of AI is helping brands build relevance in every moment between sales and service to attract new opportunities to engage customers and boost revenue.

AI maximizes value per customer by suggesting highly relevant products and appropriate offers for prospective and current buyers. In addition, it increases the productivity of marketing campaigns through data-driven and machine learning-enabled features.

According to accounting firm BDO’s Technology Outlook Survey, scaling the business is the top priority among CFOs in major tech firms. Scaling up a business is about foreseeing opportunities and leveraging them to enlarge the potential of the brand.

For instance, clothing retail giant H&M scales its customer support using an AI-powered messaging app to shop exclusively through a conversation with a bot. 

The tech is so promising, it can be challenging to discern precisely “who” you’re talking to in some live chat situations. But does it matter if the question is answered swiftly and correctly?

But while AI is becoming as commonplace as the Internet, email,  masks, and sanitizers, before hopping into emerging opportunities, you will need to diagnose and establish how you would implement it into your business strategy and operations and whether AI makes sense for you now or maybe you need to check back later.

Maybe, the World Economic Forum was right to say:

“In the not-too-distant future, it will be hard to imagine that AI and our daily lives were ever so far removed from each other.”

Explore how AI technology can impact your business by boosting customer experience with Insync.