Companies that want to give clients the best possible customer experience should build a bot, according to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
Bots are software agents that can have conversations with customers or other bots and automate tasks such as hotel booking or order delivery. In the future, these bots will greatly simplify our dealings with businesses, he said.
"Think of bots that you will build as the new websites or new mobile apps. Your customers will interact with your business through these bots," said Nadella, speaking today at the Microsoft Envision conference in New Orleans.
"This is a world that we are at the very beginning stages of. But we think it's going to be much more ubiquitous in terms of its deployment."
The ways these bots could ease interactions between customers and businesses was demonstrated by Lilian Rincon, group program manager for the communications platform Skype.
Rincon showed how Microsoft's virtual assistant Cortana and a bot for a hotel were able to book her a room for an upcoming event, with minimal input from her.
All Rincon needed to do was to tell Cortana to clear her diary for the event, and the virtual helper, knowing the dates and location of the event, engaged a bot at what Rincon said was her favorite nearby hotel.
The bot from the hotel, having been fed the dates of Rincon's stay by Cortana, presented Rincon with a card inside Skype that allowed her to pick from the available rooms. With Rincon having chosen a room, Cortana passed the relevant details to the hotel bot to make the booking. The only manual input required by Rincon was to confirm Cortana's choice of hotel and choose a room - everything else taken care of by the bot and Cortana.
"The Westin [hotel] actually knows the dates and the location so I don't have to repeat myself, which saves me a ton of time and energy," said Rincon.
While Cortana can't yet behave in such a proactive way, Microsoft also announced last week that the virtual assistant will soon gain the ability to automatically handle things such as hotel bookings - pulling data from what it knows about the wider world and our past behaviour.
Slack is already enabling similar bots on its communication platform, so the idea is not new, but Microsoft is placing a heavy emphasis on how these bots could interact with Cortana.
To demonstrate the potential of bots, Microsoft recently made a handful of its own Skype bots available to users of its Skype iOS, Android and Windows apps. The company also is releasing a new Skype Bot software development kit, so third-party developers can build their own Skype bots.
Nadella stressed that bots would shift the way businesses handle customer relations and would have an impact akin to that of websites or apps.
"Going forward we envision a new platform, which is going to be as powerful, if not more powerful than the web or mobile apps. We call it the 'conversation as a platform'.
"The history of customer engagement has been shaped and reshaped by changes in the point of engagement and nature of engagement. We are on the cusp of one such major shift."
Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.