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Virtual idiots

Chatbots after COVID-19: What does the future hold for the ‘virtual idiot’?


Seemingly destined for extinction, chatbots appear to have been rescued and revived during the coronavirus pandemic. So are consumers now more tolerant of chatbots, and what does the future look like for the previously-maligned service channel?

29th Mar 2021
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It was only two years ago that a Forrester report, somewhat disparagingly, declared that the majority of chatbots were poorly-implemented, systematically “ruining customer experiences” and – in the case of the worst incarnations – nothing more than “virtual idiots”.

Other research led to similar declarations. Almost half of 5,000 consumers in Europe, the U.S. and Australia surveyed in 2018 said automated chatbots were 'annoying'. In 2019, 54% of online US consumers stated that interactions with customer service chatbots had “a negative impact on the quality of their lives”.

It’s been a rocky road for the humble chatbot, as a service channel. However, whilst the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly been a disruptive and negative force on so many aspects of our lives, it may well have been the catalyst for the chatbot’s revival.

Their fate was aided first by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), both of which successfully installed and deployed chatbots on their websites at the very start of last year’s pandemic, to provide up-to-date information on the coronavirus – and both were lauded for their successful deployment.

Then there was the dash to digital. As consumers all over the globe were forced indoors due to national lockdowns and curfews, their digital footprint increased exponentially overnight. This led to huge upticks in the use of digital service channels, including messenger platforms, self-service, email and, of course, bots.

NICE inContact research found 67% of consumers using AI-powered conversational technology for customer service in 2020, up from 46% in 2019. As a result, according to Linchpin, 47% of organisations are expected to implement chatbots for customer support services, having been buoyed by the more forgiving consumer response to using them during 2020. Research and Markets predicts the chatbot market to grow from US$3.3bn in 2020 to $8.7bn by the end of 2025.

“Conversational technology (and chatbots) have matured significantly [since the start of COVID-19],” explains Greg Kefer, chief marketing officer of chatbot developer LifeLink, in an interview with PharmaPhorum last year.  

“Healthcare companies have been running pilots with chatbot technology for the past few years and many were moving out of pilot stage and into frontline, advanced healthcare workflow automation. Then COVID-19 hit and everything changed.

“Almost overnight, millions of patients were using chatbots as they sought guidance about coronavirus symptoms. The bots met extreme conversational demand in a time when human teams were in extremely short supply. Now the question being asked is what else these virtual agents can do in other areas.”

Augmented reality

The reason for optimism around chatbots this time around is simple – the technology is more sophisticated, and the rationale for their use is better understood by both consumers and the businesses implementing them.

Back in 2016, when chatbots were arguably first popularised by their introduction onto Facebook’s Messenger platform, most brands treated them as a marketing gimmick and within a few months the majority had crashed and burned after launch.

However, now, brands understand the role of chatbots as a customer service channel. A self-service one, yes; but one that is augmented with human interaction rather than entirely automated.

“Chatbots, alongside other self-service channels, like conversational IVR, are quickly becoming ‘must have’ offerings,” explains Graham Allen, senior director of product management at NICE inContact.

“Some chatbots are better than others but, until recently, chatbots on digital channels has been an after-thought and a lost opportunity for many businesses. More and more in the last year or so, we’ve seen self-service on digital channels become the expectation.

“Especially through the pandemic, consumers became more enthusiastic about using bots to communicate. Bots can be used to help a consumer around a website as a shortcut to the appropriate information, or even handle full transactions. And contact centres are seeing the value and cost savings in using bots to drive greater efficiencies, with the agents taking the critical or complex questions off their hands at the appropriate point.”

Chatbots, alongside other self-service channels, like conversational IVR, are quickly becoming ‘must have’ offerings

Watershed moment

So what does the future hold in the midst of the chatbot renaissance? In an era where artificial intelligence is beginning to wonder into the realms of emotional understanding (including learning to cry), and some conversational technologies have become indistinguishable from their human counterparts, can we expect chatbots to return to being fully-automated service channels in the near-future, or is their human augmentation here to stay?

Allen believes that the remote working revolution that has happened in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic may have determined the long-term fate for chatbots, as a service channel:

“Remote and distributed workforces are here to stay. Some teams will head back to the office, but we are seeing that many find their remote workforce gained momentum and provides advantages around higher skilled individuals – longer retention, higher agent satisfaction, etc. All while increasing productivity.

“Therefore we’re seeing a complete overhaul of how brands deliver customer service. The changes to the workforce and working patterns, combined with the new digital-first requirements of many consumers, mean a much greater requirement on automated channels as a first port of call.    

“Chatbots demonstrated their worth initially, by providing faster service on easy requests and repetitive tasks (low hanging fruit), but more investment and machine learning  are needed to refine, tune, and enhance the AI before extending self-service to more complex use cases. Certainly in the short-term it’s likely that chatbots will only be successful when they have the capacity to escalate to human involvement with ease and without affecting a customers’ experience.”  

According to the 2020 NICE inContact CX Transformation Benchmark, Business Wave more than 70% of businesses agree chatbots make it easier for customer to get their issues resolved.

More investment and machine learning  are needed to refine, tune, and enhance the AI before extending self-service to more complex use cases

But beyond simply answering customer service queries, there’s also a school of thought that chatbots can drive more innovation into contact centres and customer service operations.

“Some brands are learning that the best use cases for chatbots are situations where they can be used for proactive communication,” explains technologist and author, Prof. Steven van Belleghem.  

“Using KLM as an example, the airline started deploying chatbots in 2019 to inform passengers where their luggage would come out in the baggage reclaim area while they are on their journey. Sharing information about an upcoming event adds value to a customer, plus it is much easier than using bots to solve complex customer service issues.

“I think we’ll become more trusting of proactive communication from chatbots [in the coming years], and this will help companies interact with customers effectively, not only after a problem has already arisen. The technologies that sit behind chatbots are improving all the time, and that is a big part of why more and more brands are using them in customer service. They’re more reliable, and they create a much more human-like experience today than they did just a couple of years ago.”

And far from the coronavirus pandemic being exclusively a Pandora’s box event for chatbots alone, Allen believes that artificial intelligence’s role in the contact centre has now been clearly defined by events over the last 12 months, with a clear message for brands questioning the validity of implementing AI-based tools to improve their customer service.

“In 2020, we saw AI-powered self-service explode as consumers looked for new more convenient ways to connect.. Organisations who were not prepared for unanticipated spikes in digital traffic were caught off guard and left challenged. But those business leaders who had a strategy and implemented self-service, even a modest addition like voice-enabled IVR or chatbot – saw that AI helped them cope with surging contact volumes and even drive business outcomes.

“Not only are consumers happy to skip the queue and save time, but letting them self-serve frees up contact centre agents to focus on higher-value interactions that require a human touch. Over the next year, expect to see more contact centres investing in AI applications and, for those who already have, further refinement. We’ve already seen contact centres that implemented self-service and tools like chatbots in 2020 are now looking for ways to refine, improve and expand that capability.”  

Want to learn more about chatbots? Get all the fundamentals in the comprehensive “Chatbot Starter’s Guide” eBook.

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