Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot: Chatbots Are the Most Important Technology in Decades

Today marks the end of HubSpot’s annual Inbound Conference.  What started out as a nice little gathering of roughly 200 folks in 2008 has morphed into a conference of 19,000 attendees this year.

While there were a slew of announcements that came out over the four days of the event, it was a statement Hubspot (NYSE:HUBS) CTO and cofounder Dharmesh Shah’s made during his keynote speech that caught (and kept) my attention – that he felt chatbots are the most important technology to come out in decades.

I was able to grab some time with Shah to hear more about why bots have such potential to such a game-changing technology and to hear about HubSpot’s own Growthbot efforts.

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Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot discusses why chatbots like Growthbot are the most important tech development in a really long time.Small Business Trends: What’s the biggest thing since you started HubSpot with Brian Halligan ten years ago that has surprised you the most about marketing, and how people have gravitated around some of the things that you’ve put out there?

Dharmesh Shah: The biggest surprise for lack of a better term is how global the underlying fundamental philosophy of Inbound Marketing is. When we started talking about it here in the United States a decade ago that gave us confidence was that people were nodding their heads some would say the same thing is not gonna work out that well this is an observation that company was very young and what we found though is that as we go to Europe, Asia, Latin America with that same kind of core message all over the world. We have that same nodding of heads; people were like ‘yup this that makes sense. I’m not exactly sure what to do about it but that makes sense to me.

I think it’s a fundamental human thing. So I don’t think it’s a particularly big leap, I think we’re surprised by how quickly people just agree with the philosophy. They may disagree with some tactics underlying it or to what mix should be in inbound vs outbound. The we may have debates around it, but that’s been a big gratifying surprise; this is not just you, not just Boston and not just United States, it’s a global movement.

Small Business Trends: Your keynote is really interesting. You said something that really caught my attention. You said that you think chatbots is a technology that may be the most important technology over the last few decades. So first of all I just want to make sure I heard that right.

Dharmesh Shah: You did. Chatbots are the manifestation, but the underlying trend that’s the biggest thing we’ve seen in two decades is conversational interfaces. That’s what a chatbot essentially is. It’s allowing you to get around the software using either text or voice. And the reason I think that’s such a big deal is that, with all due respect to the iPhone and other things that have happened obviously the last couple of decades, when iPhone came out we already had the web. We had some apps that knew that cameras on phones had sensors. Yes it was touch and swipe instead of click. But those are only slightly different interaction metaphors.

But now with the conversational UI a couple of things are happening. One is people can express the things they want in direct terms. They don’t have to translate it from the words that are in their head. They just have to say the words that are in their head and that’s enough.

And for decades when you were building software you felt like it’s an intuitive interface, an intuitive website. Well it’s not completely intuitive ever because whatever the human is trying to do they still had to translate into a metaphor with what that particular interface provides. That’s the number one reason.

Number two reason, from a product of management perspective, is figuring out what to build. What is it my users want to be able to do with an application or a website – whatever it is. With the conversational UI every night I go through the logs for our growthbot and my users tell me what they want to do. We get a thousand plus messages a day. Some of them the bot already handles. Some of them are marriage proposals and profanity on the Internet. But then some of them are reasonable things to want to do with growthbot. I don’t have to guess. What do people wish they could do, they tell me. And then I go back and over the weeks and months and years I will build those things. We’ve never had that opportunity to blank canvas what the people dream of.

For example if you go to a web application, users say to themselves I wish they had this little button or this filter for something. Users can think that, but then you’d have to take an active action just to get that idea somewhere else; just to say can you please build this. Here, using the application is providing the idea to builders. This is what I want. That’s the big thing.

Small Business Trends: You said businesses have been focused on building websites for over a decade. But you think going forward they are going to be focused on building bots to work with websites. How soon do you see that happening?

Dharmesh Shah: I think it will be pretty soon. I think it’s already started having their startups working on it. Right now there’s a company called Drift – friends of ours here in Boston that are in that general area. And I think what’s happening here is that the software community is now figuring out there’s a bunch of things that are happening simultaneously. One is natural language recognition has gotten much better than it was a year ago. And people are much more used to messaging now; ordering an Uber ride, ordering Domino’s pizza or something like that. It’s not that foreign to them. So now it’s possible to build these things.

The reason I think that bots should supplement websites comes back to humans are – and it is in a positive way – fundamentally lazy. They come on a website, let’s say they have a question in their head; Somebody comes to the HubSpot website and say’s ‘oh can I buy this month-to-month as a requirement in our contract’ – that’s the question you have. You are not sure if that is on the pricing page or is out on the terms of service, so where do I go to get that question answered?

In the early days what’s going to happen is the bots are going to be playing more triage; maybe they can answer 5 percent the questions with some reasonable degree of accuracy. Over time that percentage will go up and up and up because we will have this growing knowledge base; the bot will know more and more things. It will learn essentially over time. And this is not that far off.

Once the bot gets used enough, in the same way Google’s search engine gives you auto-suggest the bots will give you auto-suggest. Not just based on things you are typing. But based on what you’ve done on the website. You went to the pricing page and you typed these two characters so you’re probably asking this question.

Small Business Trends: What role do things like the Amazon Echo and other voice assistants play in the growth of chatbots?

Dharmesh Shah: I think it’s going to be big. Because what Amazon Alexa, Siri, Google Home and all these things essentially teach us, which we’ve sort of forgotten, is how to be human and just be able to say things. We’re so used to as having to do something with technology. Out comes my phone and I start clicking and doing something. With Echo, and people that have had it for a while, it’s completely natural now that you’re sitting at the dining room table trying to settle a debate or some fact thing, or play some piece of music, or whatever – and you just say it.

And you get used to that. It feels a little weird the first few days. But then it becomes natural. So these devices will help people not feel strange or awkward about saying things to technology or say things to computers. It becomes much more natural.

Now the shift that I think will happen… Amazon Echo is great. We have three of them in the house. We love it.

Small Business Trends: I know your son loves it.

Dharmesh Shah: My son, my wife loves it as it turns out. But what I think is going to happen, in my mind the optimal interaction a year or two from now, we’re going to have voice as input because we talk much faster than we type. So the most efficient form of input to a device is the voice. But the most efficient output from a device is not voice, it’s visual. We read faster than we can listen to spoken speech. And especially if you have a visualization.

If I’m talking to you about the numbers – just reciting numbers you digest that much more easily in charts and graphs. So I think the answers to these things like Siri where you talk into it, will be the answer comes to you on a screen of some sort.

Small Business Trends: What’s the future of digital marketing. Is it what we just talked about or is it something we haven’t even conjured up?

Dharmesh Shah: This has happened in other industries. Any activity in marketing that is fundamentally rote, repetitive, those things are going to start moving more and more to software. It’s just the way to do it because we shouldn’t be spending precious human time on something that computers can do better. That doesn’t make sense. We’re going to see that shift happen. Just in my mind inevitable. That’s going to be the next five years.

The way we think about the marketers role five years out is to say the number one role the marketer has is understanding the customer. Who are you selling to? How do they think? Actually having face to face meetings. I think it will take a long time for machines to replicate some of those kinds of functions.

The second thing … When you were building software products and websites the marketers helped write the copy for the website and then it was a web designer that said hey I’m going to help you make that look nice. In five years what’s going to happen is marketers are going to have much more direct involvement in creating the experience of a company.

So what you’ll see is similar to what we have with web designers; you’ll have bot design or interaction design. And the nice thing is the most important thing is understanding the customer. So you’ll be able to sit down and say here’s how I would like to craft this set of answers to these common questions that our business gets all the time, and here’s the tone we’re trying to emulate. So in the same way we have style guides, we’re going to have interaction guidelines; we have a light amusing tone or do we have a very stiff and “ just the facts and nothing but” tone. That’s going to vary from company to company.

Small Business Trends: Will there be empathy automation? Or are we going to allow the human to still use their empathy along with all the other tools that you just talked about so that it’s not man versus machine, but man with machine to do the work.

Dharmesh Shah: I think this move to machines and software will actually help us be more empathetic. So I had this glib answer once when someone asked me around this man vs. machine question; My answer is I’ve met humans that are not all that empathetic. Travel on the airlines and especially when flights are delayed and there’s a lack of empathy for the situation. And the reason for that lack of empathy – and I’m an optimist and believe in humans overall – is the lack of empathy occurs when people are stressed out.

I think their intentions are good but you have two thousand people showing up in line because you need to reschedule their flight, that stresses the ability of even the best people to express empathy.

So if we can take those things out, that could hopefully help us maybe empathize at scale. That would be a good thing to think about. That’s where the software helps. We have to automate some things in order to make that possible, otherwise it won’t work.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.