Machine customers, or “custobots,” are AI-powered machines that use logic to assess commerce opportunities and may be on course to complete or influence purchases on a massive scale. B2B companies should consider them as part of their competitive future, writes Kathleen Lewarchick, vice president of marketing at B2B digital services firm Xngage.

Kathleen Leigh Lewarchick_Xngage

Kathleen Lewarchick

Smart devices are changing the world. I see it every day from where I sit at the apex of marketing and technology. But even I cannot believe what’s next: the evolution toward smart, machine customers.

The idea took hold in me years ago when my father worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. He hired Rear Admiral Grace Hopper to help convert mainframe computing to personal computing at his company, and she came to our house for dinner. Although I couldn’t understand her vision at the time, she spoke about machines talking to each other, even ordering from one another.

A $30 trillion forecast

It seemed like a Star Trek episode to me, but I was curious enough to ask how that would work, and she said: “The machine has to know a lot about you and your habits. The machines will speak a code (a language) to each other. Together, they could predict what you might need next.”

We are arriving at that moment. According to a report by technology research and advisory firm Gartner, “Machine Customers will be directly involved in or have influence over a cumulative $30 trillion in purchases” over the next decade. Gartner adds that a Machine Customer, also known as a “custobot,” is a “non-human economic actor who obtains goods or services in exchange for payment.”


In essence, custobots are intelligent machines that use logic to assess commerce opportunities, suggest or decide alternatives, and maybe complete the purchase.

I had an inkling where this was going. As a former PURELL® Hand Sanitizer brand director who worked intimately on an IoT (Internet of Things) dispenser project, I saw first-hand how connected commerce ushered in an era of products as veritable “data engines.”

But I left the company before the new B2A (Business to Artificial Intelligence) new product development era. And yet, over the past five years, as I created B2B (Business-to-Business) and B2T (Business-to-Thing) innovation, I kept an eye on this megatrend and kept Grace Hopper’s words in mind.

An inside look at B2A commerce

The future state became clearer to me when, recently returning to lecture at Duke University, I drafted a presentation showcasing B2C, B2B, B2T and B2A marketing examples to students


Here’s the example I created depicting a very plausible, future B2A solution:

9:00 Voice Prompt:

  • “Hello Kathleen! The sanitizer is almost out in the office cafeteria.
  • Only 12 of your 19 employees onsite this morning will be able to use it.
  • There are three distributors who have your preferred product in inventory and can deliver it to you in less than 2 hours.
  • One of them has a smart contract in place for using my AI services, and if you order now, you can save 25%.
  • Would you like me to order that product, alert facilities management, and have it installed before the mid-day lunch break?”

While I have no idea (nor intel) if this solution exists today, it is conceivably possible.

Here’s why:

  • Many smart products have sensors in them that indicate levels of product, and manufacturers know how to measure usage rates.
  • Many companies have security badges for employees to scan into their office.
  • Many distributors have vendor managed inventory and smart supply chains, and many assure just-in-time shipping.
  • Smart contracts and blockchain are making it easier to do automated business.
  • APIs can create alerts for both machines and human service professionals.
  • While in this example a human still approves the purchase, increasingly the custobots who recognized and signaled the need can also place the order.

How machines customers will get smarter — and more helpful

As machines become smarter and more adept at machine-learning and AI, they will surely take over some of the drudgery of low-level tasks. And they will anticipate needs that can overwhelm a buyer, especially with limited time and resources. These machines will help reduce complexity, create efficiencies, and establish new market opportunities for the enterprising companies that embrace this wave of smart purchasing.

As a career marketing professional, I can already anticipate the changes to the creative process and the migration from human-centric design to rules-based machine design. But there will be other ways to leverage creativity, problem-solving, and emotional delight. And when machines help us to remember and anticipate tasks that are less delightful to do, we are freed up for thoughtful work.

Now is the time to learn more about Machine Customers. If your company is already digital-first, or well through a digital transformation, the integrated ecosystem will be a modest step change.

But if you are lagging behind in this space, it is time to gather your C-Suite and look at how markets are being reshaped using digital, large language models (LLMs) and artificial intelligence. Addressing digital as a whole, and machine customers as part of your future, will competitively position you for the next decade and beyond.


About the Author:

Kathleen Leigh Lewarchick is the VP of Marketing for Xngage LLC, a B2B digital commerce services company with more than 60 clients across the industrial trades. She is the former PURELL® Hand Sanitizer Brand Director, has co-created automated replenishment products with Amazon Business, and created telehealth solutions for a company that she later helped sell to CVS Health. 

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