26 February 2024

Dharmesh Shah from HubSpot: Chatbots, a Revolutionary Technology

By Ronald Smith

Today marks the end of HubSpot’s annual Inbound Conference. It’s incredible how this small gathering of about 200 people in 2008 has turned into a massive event with 19,000 attendees this year.

Throughout the four days of the conference, there were many exciting announcements. However, it was Dharmesh Shah, the CTO and cofounder of HubSpot, who really caught my attention with his keynote speech. He boldly claimed that chatbots are the most groundbreaking technology we’ve seen in decades.

I had the privilege of speaking with Shah to dig deeper into why he believes chatbots have such extraordinary potential. We also discussed HubSpot’s own Growthbot initiatives.

USamerica.US: When I founded HubSpot with Brian Halligan ten years ago, I never could have predicted the remarkable impact marketing would have and how people would embrace the ideas we’ve shared.

Dharmesh Shah: You know what’s really surprising? How Inbound Marketing is embraced worldwide. When we first started talking about it in the United States ten years ago, we were hopeful but uncertain. Would people understand it and embrace it like we did? Well, guess what? As we traveled to Europe, Asia, and Latin America, we saw the same reaction. People were nodding their heads and saying, Yeah, that makes sense. It’s incredible to see the universal understanding of this philosophy, even if they’re not quite sure how to put it into action.

I believe it’s something that every human being shares. It’s not a huge leap, actually. What surprises us is how quickly people embrace the philosophy. They may have some disagreements about the specific strategies or the balance between inbound and outbound approaches. We may have debates about those things, but what’s truly gratifying is that this movement goes beyond just one person, one city, or even one country—it’s a global phenomenon.

USamerica.US: Your keynote was absolutely fascinating. One thing you mentioned really caught my attention. You said that you consider chatbots to be the most significant technological development of recent decades. So, first of all, I just want to make sure I understood correctly.

I: You know what I find fascinating? It’s this new thing called conversational interfaces. Have you heard of them? Well, let me break it down for you. These conversational interfaces are what we call chatbots. They’re like little virtual assistants that you can talk to or type messages to. And the amazing thing is, they make it so much easier for you to interact with software. No more complicated buttons or menus. Just good old-fashioned conversation.

Now, you might be thinking, Why is this such a big deal? Well, let me explain. Think about it. In the past, when new technologies like the iPhone came out, they were cool and all, but they didn’t really change the way we interacted with software. Sure, we had touch screens and swipe gestures, but the basic idea was still the same: click, tap, drag, and drop. It was just a different way of doing the same old thing.

But conversational interfaces, my friend, they’re a whole new ball game. They take software interaction to a whole new level. Instead of tapping and swiping, you can now have natural, human-like conversations with your devices. You can tell them what you want, and they’ll understand you. It’s like having a little robot friend who’s always there to help.

But now, with conversational UI, something exciting is happening. You and I can express exactly what we want in simple, straightforward terms. We don’t have to struggle to find the right words or translate our thoughts. We can just say what’s on our mind, and that’s all it takes.

For years, when software was being created, we were promised intuitive interfaces and websites. But let’s be honest, they were never truly intuitive. We always had to figure out how to use the interface or website based on the metaphors and symbols provided. That’s why conversational UI is so important and different.

So, the number two reason, from my perspective as a product manager, is figuring out what exactly to create. I need to know what my users want to be able to do with an application or a website. Thankfully, with our conversational UI, I have a direct line of communication with my users. Every night, I dive into the logs of our growthbot and read the messages they send. We receive over a thousand messages each day. Some of them the bot can already handle, while others are inappropriate or spam. But among them, there are also some genuinely useful ideas for what users want from growthbot. I don’t have to guess anymore. They tell me what they wish they could do. And then, in the following weeks, months, and even years, I work on building those features. It’s a fantastic opportunity to bring people’s dreams to life.

When I visit a web application, I often find myself thinking, I wish they had a little button or a filter for this. It’s frustrating because I have to make an effort to bring that idea to the attention of the developers. I have to ask them, Can you please build this? But what if using the application itself could generate those ideas for the builders? What if I could simply say, This is what I want? That would be a game-changer.

USamerica.US: You mentioned that businesses have been focused on building websites for more than ten years. However, you believe that moving forward, the focus will shift towards building bots to complement websites. How soon do you think this transition will happen?

I think it’ll happen pretty soon. I mean, it’s already in motion with startups diving into the game. Take Drift, for example – they’re local friends of mine here in Boston, and they’re right in the thick of it. You see, the software community is starting to realize that a lot of exciting developments are unfolding all at once. First, natural language recognition has made gigantic strides in the past year. People are also much more comfortable with messaging nowadays – it’s become second nature to order an Uber or Domino’s pizza through text. So, it’s totally plausible to create these kinds of things.

I believe that bots should be used to enhance websites because, let’s face it, humans can be quite lazy. When someone visits a website, they often have a question in their mind. For example, let’s say you come to the HubSpot website and you’re wondering, Can I buy this month-to-month as a requirement in our contract? You’re not sure if the answer is on the pricing page or buried in the terms of service. So, where do you go to find that answer?

In the beginning, bots will primarily serve as triage for these questions. Maybe they can answer about 5% of the questions with a reasonable degree of accuracy. However, as time goes on, this percentage will increase because the bots will have access to a growing knowledge base. They will learn more and more over time. And this future is not that far away.

When the bot becomes familiar to you, it starts suggesting things just like Google’s search engine. The bot doesn’t just give suggestions based on what you’re typing, but also on what you’ve done on the website. For example, if you visited the pricing page and typed a specific set of characters, the bot can understand that you’re likely asking a certain question.

USamerica.US: How do devices like the Amazon Echo and other voice assistants contribute to the development of chatbots?

Dharmesh Shah: I reckon it’s gonna be huge. Because ya know what? Amazon Alexa, Siri, Google Home, and all those gizmos really remind us how to be human, how to just speak our minds. Nowadays, we’re so used to having to interact with technology. We whip out our phones and start tapping away. But with Echo, it’s different. Folks who’ve had it for a while now find it totally normal to be sitting at the dinner table, settling arguments or looking up facts, playing songs – just by saying it out loud.

And you get used to it. Sure, it’s a bit weird at first. But then, it becomes second nature. These smart devices help us feel less weird or awkward about talking to technology, to computers. It becomes more natural, you know?

So here’s what I think will happen… I really like the Amazon Echo. We have three of them in our house and we think it’s amazing.

USamerica.US: I know your son is a big fan of it.

Dharmesh Shah: Turns out, my son and my wife really love it. But here’s the thing: in my opinion, the best way to interact with devices in the future, maybe a year or two from now, will be through voice commands. We talk much faster than we can type, so speaking is the most efficient way to input information. However, when it comes to getting information out of a device, visual output is more efficient than voice. We can read much faster than we can listen to someone speaking, especially if there are visuals to help us.

If I’m having a conversation with you about numbers – just throwing numbers at you – you understand them better when they’re presented in charts and graphs. So, I believe that solutions like Siri, where you talk to it and get an answer back on a screen, will become more common.

USamerica.US: What does the future hold for digital marketing? Is it what we just discussed or is there something we haven’t even thought of yet?

Dharmesh Shah: This kind of change has happened in other industries. Any marketing task that is repetitive and predictable will gradually be taken over by software. It’s simply more efficient to let computers handle those tasks, rather than wasting human time on them. We’ll definitely see this shift happening in the next five years, I’m convinced.

When I think about the role of a marketer in the future, I believe the most important thing they can do is understand the customer. Who are you trying to sell to? What do they think? It’s crucial to have face-to-face meetings and really get to know the people you’re targeting. I don’t think machines will be able to replicate those kinds of interactions anytime soon.

Another significant change that I foresee is how marketers will be involved in creating the experience of a company. Currently, when we build software products and websites, marketers help write the copy for the website, and then a web designer comes in to make it look nice. But in the next five years, I predict that marketers will have a much more direct role in shaping the overall experience.

So what you’ll see is kind of like what web designers do – you’ll have bot design or interaction design. And the cool thing is, the most important thing is understanding the customer. So you can sit down and plan out how you want to answer all those common questions that our business always gets, and choose the tone we want to use. It’s just like we have style guides for how things look, we’re going to have guidelines for how things sound. We can go for a light and playful tone, or we can be very serious and stick to just the facts. It all depends on the company we’re working for.

USamerica.US: 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 simple answer once when someone asked me about this man vs. machine question; You see, I’ve come across humans who lack empathy. You can observe this lack of empathy when you travel on airlines, especially during flight delays. It’s a difficult situation, and yet there’s often a lack of understanding and compassion. Now, I’m an optimist, and I believe in humans, but I also recognize that stress can cause a deficit in empathy.

I believe they mean well, but when you have two thousand people waiting in line because their flights need to be rescheduled, it becomes incredibly challenging for even the most compassionate individuals to show empathy.

So, if we can eliminate some of those obstacles, it might help us to empathize on a larger scale. It’s definitely something worth considering. This is where software comes in handy. We need to automate certain tasks in order to make that possible; otherwise, it just won’t be feasible.

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