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Chat Bots for Business: Helpful or Hopeless?

26th Sep 2016
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Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent (owner of WeChat), Twitter, and Microsoft are all promoting chat bots (‘bots’) as a way to connect with customers, and the tech media is getting very excited about the possibilities. Instead of just browsing a website, you can now have a conversation with a bot that mirrors the experience that you would get when you go into a clicks and mortar store. Not only that, but for the first time, people are using messenger apps more than they are using social networks.

This strategy makes perfect sense as tech industry heavyweights build out their ecosystems for commerce and customer support. Along with advances in conversational technologies and artificial intelligence, bot technology is now becoming mainstream.

While this is great for the bot industry, there is a concern that we’ll see a large number of poorly designed and ineffective bots hitting the market when companies experiment with the technology, but without really knowing how to incorporate the right elements needed for a successful deployment.  A spate of really bad bot deployments over the next few years could cause a great deal of frustration and turn many consumers off the concept altogether.

And that’s important because we’ve seen time and time again how unforgiving customers can be if their first experiences of a new technology are poor. Those of us who work in the tech industry have a responsibility to ensure that we prevent consumer headaches from the start.

As such, we urge businesses considering launching bots to consider the following three points:

Choose A Bot With Intelligence

1) Not all bots are created equal. The term “bot” seems to have become an umbrella term that includes just about everything from a very basic, dumbed down automated Q&A machine to highly sophisticated enterprise-ready virtual agent that understands natural language, maintains context and also scales to a large number of users.

Some analysts are hesitant to even classify virtual agents as bots. This is because most bots (with the exception of virtual agents) are nothing more than general purpose tools that only handle basic Q&As or chime in with standard phrases such as “can I help you book a flight?”

Generic bots are simply not designed to serve businesses because they lack elements such as customer journey pathways, access to the right knowledge management systems and the ability to understand natural language – the kind of language that people use every day in their normal conversation. If they can’t do that, then how can they possibly understand customer intent? Customising generic bots to fit the business is where most enterprises will struggle. Businesses with high volumes of customer interaction and complex business processes require a level of sophistication that draws from a variety of data sources to make the bot effective.

2) Integrate the Bot With Agent-Assisted Chat Experiences

Integrating a bot with chat is not hard. It can be as simple as putting a chat button in the bot interface. However, doing it effectively for the optimal customer experience requires accessing and embedding intelligence. A bot should be designed to easily troubleshoot the most common problems that a customer could face and then be capable of escalating anything more complex to a human agent. It is in this area that investments have been short sighted.

Almost all bot deployments to date, and those that will surface in the market in coming years, will not be intuitive as the customer escalates from a bot to a chat experience with a live agent. The context and the history of that customer’s experiences will not be there and the experience will be disjointed.   

An intelligent bot that understands the customer’s journey, intent, and behaviour (and reacts accordingly) is just one piece of the puzzle. The other is being able to evolve quickly - being able to analyse chat transcripts between customer and agent and then use those findings to improve the bot interaction through an infusion of knowledge in each interaction. Towards this end, the bot and the agent need to draw from the same well of information.

3) Future-Proof Your Investments in Bots

The reality is that channels come and go. How soon will it be before enterprises look to support customer engagement through augmented and virtual reality?

So bots must be designed to stand the test of time and transcend channels. The notion of a universal concierge who can front-end all digital engagement is here to stay, so you should build towards it.

In order to do this, don’t just provide a bot for one channel, but rather create a long term strategy that mitigates risk by building on a single, reusable service-oriented platform. Do it in such a way that it straddles engagement channels and intelligence and interfaces are abstracted and invoked as a service. Towards this end the platform should be able to abstract:

Natural language (text and voice)

Interfaces (graphical, voice, multimodal)

Data (interaction, unstructured and enterprise systems of record)

Prediction (the ability to identify customer intent)

These elements are constantly evolving, and incorporating them distinguishes the bots that can actually drive business outcomes and improve engagement. By segregating the presentation and intelligence layers, businesses can sustain a competitive advantage in time to market, resources, and costs. This same single, reusable platform can also be used to power other customer touchpoints like voice, mobile and chat, as well as others that will emerge in the future.     

Successful Businesses Do ‘All Of The Above’

Some companies are doing it right and here are just a few examples:

Retail: A large US retail chain is preparing to roll out a system to let consumers receive order notifications, receipts and shipping updates, all through a single messaging platform.

Travel: A major airline is preparing to roll out a system for handling the entire flight booking life cycle including booking confirmations, reminders when check-in opens, getting a boarding pass and receiving flight status updates.

Entertainment: An online entertainment service will soon offer service updates, outage notifications and alerts to update credit card information before it expires.

In all of these cases, consumers will be able to ask questions that can be handled by a virtual agent, or escalated to a human being if needed.

Remember a customer does not want to engage with a bot simply for the sake of using the latest technology. The novelty of a bot providing simple, but unhelpful answers will fade quickly.

What consumers want is technology that works for them: helps them pay a bill, return an item or book a hotel. The businesses that get it will avoid false starts and do it right the first time to make their bot the one that engages customers in the right way, with immediacy, context and the intelligence to know what to do next. If done right, bots can be a lasting future pillar of your organisation’s customer engagement strategy.

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