Four reasons why 2019 could be the year that chatbots grow up

26th Mar 2019

New innovations in chatbot use suggest that brands are identifying more ways to add value to customer journeys. 

For many years, business leaders and marketing teams have talked about chatbots as the future of customer service. Yet somehow, they have failed to live up to expectations – customers still get frustrated with them, and they perhaps haven’t eased pressures on customer service teams as much as everyone had envisaged.

However, I have seen a number of brands start to use chatbots in a slightly different way in recent months, and it could be a sign that they are starting to add more value to the customer journey.

Overall, I have identified four reasons why I think 2019 could be the year that chatbots grow up and finally meet expectations. 

1. The technology has matured

Ashok Goel is a lecturer at Georgia Tech, and is regarded as one of the world’s top professors in computer sciences. His subjects are quite specialised so he usually only has 20 students in his class, but his online course attracts a group of about 400 enthusiastic students each year. In fact, Professor Goel found that he was receiving so many questions that it was no longer feasible to answer them all properly, so he turned to a bot, known simply as Jill Watson.

Jill Watson was programmed to help students (customers) quickly and efficiently, tackling routine questions so that the workload of the human teachers was reduced. Of course, all bots first need training, but by watching student questions in a closed environment and being educated on what answers were correct, Jill eventually evolved to be let loose to answer students’ simpler questions, leaving the more complex questions for the human teaching team.

What was interesting is that the team didn't tell the students that Jill Watson is a machine – at the end of the term, not one of them had guessed.

2. Social media is too slow

When social media started to play a prominent part in our lives, many people saw it as the future of customer service provision, and many companies invested heavily in it. Nearly a decade on, we must now conclude that social media can still only answer a fraction of the questions asked by customers. Social media are much better suited as content channels than as service channels, and the telephone still seems to be a vital channel for customer contact.

The explanation for this is the relative slowness of social media. KLM, for example, answers customer service questions via social media 24/7 within 30 minutes. This is excellent, except for passengers who have an urgent question about a flight that leaves in less than 30 minutes!

The reality is that customers are still helped quicker by telephone than by Facebook. Even if that means the customer has to listen to on-hold music for a quarter of an hour, they still get their answer faster than you would with social media.

3. Real-time is now the new minimum

The success of messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Whatsapp has catapulted us into the real-time world. And the symbol of this new age is the dancing dots. If you send a message to someone, you hope that you will see three dancing dots indicating that the person has received your message and is already typing a reply – and the longer the dots dance, the longer the reply you expect to receive.

Unlike social media, Jill Watson gives feedback in real-time. Communicating with a bot is fun, because the dots always begin to dance straight away. The bot is always awake and always ready for action. If the student asks a question, even in the middle of the night, the dancing dots work their magic and, hey presto, within seconds, the answer arrives.

Real-time is becoming the new minimum for routine questions in customer service. But if you want to keep your customers happy in this way, it will be impossible without the help of automated interfaces.

4. Brands are looking to move to proactive customer service

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.

However, one of the biggest changes I think we can expect to see in 2019 and beyond is a number of brands using chatbots in a much more focused and intelligent way.

Some brands are learning that the best use cases for chatbots are situations where they can be used for proactive communication. Again using KLM as an example, the airline has recently started deploying chatbots 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.

Over the course of 2019, I think we’ll become more trusting of proactive communication from chatbots, and this will help companies interact with us effectively, not only after a problem has already arisen.

Prof. Steven van Belleghem is an expert in customer experience in the digital world. He’s is an award-winning author, and his new book Customers The Day After Tomorrow is out now. Follow him on Twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at or visit

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