An important part of marketing since the dawn of the advertising age has been keeping an eye on what people are doing and finding a way to leverage that to sell your product or service, and in the digital age, the pace of this process is speeding up exponentially. As chatbot technology has grown in complexity and versatility, its potential for use in customer service and sales has also grown, but can it – and should it – really replace human interactions?
What Are Chatbots?
A chatbot is an automated system that uses a set series of inbuilt rules and artificial intelligence to provide a chat-based experience without needing a human member of staff to be directly involved. This can be done in many ways and for many purposes. One of the biggest chatbots out there is Microsoft’s Xiaoice, launched for the Chinese market purely for entertainment and conversation, now with over 20m registered users who interact with Xiaoice on average 60 times a month.
The ones you are most likely to be familiar with are Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s more recently-launched Allo; bots that are all designed to help you not only use your electronic devices more effectively but also find information in a more conversational way than typing a search term into Google on your web browser. The ‘chat’ part of the name ‘chatbot’ is crucial because it sets the tone for the interactions, a more informal one than we’re used to with an automated service.
There are chatbots available in Facebook, Kik, Slack, WeChat and more get added each week, with Facebook Messenger having had 30,000 new bots created for it between April and September of this year alone. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella summed up their rise in importance earlier this year when he stated: ‘Chatbots are the new apps.”
How Can Chatbots Be Used For Customer Service?
In the digital age, customer service has spread from a phone call centre to emails and then onto social media, with most major brands having dedicated customer service Twitter accounts and staff manning their Facebook pages to deal with incoming messages. The major downside to such things is how public the interactions are, at least until staff manage to convince the customers to take things offline, so the appeal of chatbots for brands is obvious.
For customers there is also a clear advantage in that chatbots can respond to queries immediately, whereas, according to Jo Allison, consumer behavioural analyst at research firm Canvas8, who told The Guardian that ‘almost 90% of messages for brands on social networks are ignored, while replies to the other 10% come after an average wait of 10 hours.’ She goes on to say that customers are only prepared to wait for 4 hours, so it’s clear that there’s a lot of room for improvement.
It’s not just dealing with complaints either, as there are clear opportunities for chatbots on eCommerce sites, assisting customers with finding products and guiding them down the sales funnel in the same way that a human sales assistant would do in a store. Of course, how successful this turns out to be depends on how well the chatbot functionality actually works, just as a good sales assistant needs to have the skills to make the sale happen, while a bad sales assistant is only likely to send the customer running off to another store to find what they want.
There has already been one high profile chatbot disaster, when Microsoft launched Tay, its AI chatbot in March, but ‘she’ lasted only a few hours after being manipulated on Twitter into tweeting some hugely offensive things. It was a big embarrassment and setback for Microsoft and evidence that more work was still needed to make a chatbot sophisticated enough to avoid PR nightmares and the efforts of social media pranksters.
What Does The Future Hold For Chatbots?
The Tay incident showed what can go wrong with chatbots, but there is huge potential for them to change the way we live our lives. With so many bots being created for popular apps like Facebook Messenger, clearly not all of them are going to be revolutionary or even particularly useful, but the vision that firms like Apple, Amazon and Microsoft have for chatbots is one that places them at the heart of our personal and working lives.
Nadella talks about groups of friends having a conversation over Skype and using a bot to order themselves a pizza without leaving the app, and the idea of using these automated systems all potentially from within one app to buy some clothes or book an Uber driver or switch on your central heating is certainly one with mass appeal. There’s also queries over privacy and security and questions about what this level of automation would do to society in general, and these are all issues that will need to be discussed and resolved.
We’re still a long way from that future that Nadella and others have spoken about, with few chatbots having that level of sophistication yet, let alone the kind of usage to be seen as transforming society. But we are at a place where they are starting to be useful in more practical and straightforward ways, and you can expect to be talking to more bots and less customer service staff over the next few years, for better or for worse.
What is your experience of chatbots, as either as a customer or a business? Do you think they can change the world? Get in touch via social media to let us know.