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AI and chatbots: Why customer service and why now?

22nd Sep 2016
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Ask any future-minded tech enthusiast and they’ll tell you we’re on the cusp of an artificial intelligence (AI) revolution – one that’ll see pre-programmed robots helping businesses from all industries achieve better cost- and production-efficiency.

Over the past 12 months, the AI discussion has focused pretty heavily on chatbots – pre-programmed messaging services designed to be capable of basic-level conversation without the need for any human input. In few areas of business is this more relevant and exciting than customer service.

Why customer service, and why now?

Customer service is and always has been pivotal to success for companies – relationships and the reputations that come with them can be the difference between success and failure. That said, it’s also one of the most time- and cost-intensive aspects of business. This is especially true for organisations operating on a larger scale, where dedicated call centres and sizeable social media teams are the norm.

With the pressure growing, we’ve reached a turning point for chatbots. These technologies are more capable than ever, so businesses are understandably investigating.

Tech journalist John Brandon said in an article recently: “2016 is the year of the chatbots, a turning point when the AI that drives these machines can imitate human speech, respond to queries, help you find the right product online, and troubleshoot problems.

“In fact, while there is no way to prove it, there's a good chance you have already chatted online with a customer service bot--say, at one of those pop-ups you see at an online store or when you visit a big-name brand site.”

How can chatbots be applied?

A lot of the work carried out by these dedicated teams demands human attention and empathy. Complaints, for example, must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis to prevent customers from becoming frustrated. So much of it, however, is also simple and repetitive.

Questions about terms and conditions, queries on account upgrades, requests for product information – these can all be addressed quickly and easily by automated chatbots. While the responses are technically stock, these programs are capable of so much more than their predecessors, and they can do it in record speed. They’re sophisticated and human-like enough to give many customers the attention they need, yet many businesses still debate whether they need chatbots as part of their strategic marketing.

Examples of use include:

  • General account queries – Customers can ask simple questions about their accounts, and attain all kinds of useful information; everything from renewal dates and bill schedules to upgrade options and special offers.
  • Guidance – Chatbots can be used to direct customers to relevant information already on the company’s site or elsewhere. It may be that the user isn’t sure exactly what kind of help they need and are therefore unable to search effectively online.
  • Complementing other customer service channels – Most big companies are already using manned chat services to help customers but, like traditional call centres, these channels get busy quickly. Chatbots, however, can collect important information from users before they’re connected to a team member. The agent then has a head start and none of the customer’s time is wasted.

The benefits of chatbots

So why should businesses use chatbots instead of other, more proven channels? There are a few reasons, and they’re all pretty convincing. Regardless of whether your priority is to save time, cut costs, increase customer satisfaction or all of the above, there’s a benefit worth investing in.

Firstly, chatbots reduce pressure on other customer service channels. As mentioned already, simpler enquiries can be handled automatically, with users able to elevate their queries if necessary. The result is fewer phone calls and, therefore, smaller wage bills.

Simpler enquiries can be handled automatically, with users able to elevate their queries if necessary.

Staff also then have more time to dedicate to customers who need more attention. Complex issues can be dealt with sooner, to the benefit of everyone involved.

With no need to wait for a team member to become available, customers can get help much sooner, meaning they’re less likely to grow frustrated. Overall satisfaction grows, followed by repeat custom. Brand reputation also improves as the positive sentiment spreads through word of mouth.

Chatbot technology is easy to get started with as well – it can be integrated with the company’s website or even into existing mobile channels and API's.

Are chatbots ready to take over?

No, and that’s the biggest misconception. The human element of customer service is way too important for businesses to rely only on artificial intelligence alone, at least for now. A customer may want to know more about their order and when it’s expected to arrive, for example, but what if they have multiple orders in process? What if they need to cancel one item but keep the rest? The tree of possible responses grows significantly with every interaction.

Today’s chatbots are impressively sophisticated, especially those which are able to learn over time. They’re more natural than ever before, and are only improving. At present, however, they’re definitely best placed to complement other customer service channels, whether that be telephone, email or SMS, all with the main purpose of easing pressure.

As for the future, who knows how intelligent they’ll become? The market’s best examples are already hugely powerful and are only likely to improve over time. It may be that they become more integral, and that conventional customer service takes a back seat one day.

Graeme Parton is a brand journalist. 

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