Have chatbots and video reached the customer service tipping point?
As customer service channels, both chatbots and video have historically underwhelmed consumers. But has COVID-19 enabled them to win round companies and customers?
No two customer service channels have had as many twists and turns in fortune as chatbots and video.
Take chatbots. Popularised and heralded as the future of customer interaction by Facebook in 2016, the social media giant opened its Messenger API to allow brands to create and customise their own bots via the chat app. Within a few months the majority had crashed and burned after launch.
In the same year, Microsoft’s attempts at chatbot testing poured further scorn on the service channel’s reputation when an early iteration launched on Twitter went rogue, using distasteful and occasionally racist language within hours of going online, before hastily being removed from public view by its owners.
Chatbots have improved markedly in sophistication beyond the much-maligned FB and Microsoft attempts of five years ago, but even as recently as 2019, 54% of online US consumers were stating that interactions with customer service chatbots had a negative impact on the quality of their lives.
As a result, Forrester predicted a major backlash, citing certain bots as “virtual idiots” and calling on brands to improve the chatbot experience with haste, or get rid.
Then there’s video. The more human, seemingly easier-to-implement customer service channel that is the humble video call.
Again popularised by a monolith tech company, video was central to Amazon’s launch of the Kindle Fire tablet back in 2014, with its ‘MayDay’ integration guaranteeing instant customer service with a real-life Amazon representative via video chat, at the touch of a button.
MayDay was discontinued in 2018, with Amazon struggling to adhere to its promises of answering requests within 15 seconds, instead reverting to customer support via more traditional phone and email channels, as well as its continued shift to automated service.
But even beyond Amazon’s attempts, a global study in 2018 found that the video service and support offered by most brands was continually letting down customers, with 22% of all video calls failing before a resolution was made; almost always as a result of technology and bandwidth failures.
Much has been made about the seismic changes in customer behaviour brought on as a result of 2020’s coronavirus pandemic.
In the case of video and chatbot uptake, a more positive change in fortune, on the surface, seems like a given: with most of the global population forced into lockdown and remote working, it stands to reason that customers would look to varied digital channels to request service and support from brands, and that chatbots and video would jump in to save the day.
Added to that, brands were also looking for new methods to ease the load on their customer service staff who suddenly found themselves at home and weren’t always as easily available as they might’ve been whilst in offices, contact centres and stores.
Yet in 2020, bots and video calls didn’t necessarily have the monumental rise to prominence you might expect.
Indeed, according to Zendesk’s annual benchmark report, it was messaging apps, text and self-service tools such as FAQs that saw the biggest customer service channel usage uplift at the start of last year’s pandemic.
WhatsApp experienced a 148% rise in demand as a service channel from February 2020 onwards, for example. Initial video and chatbot uptake was modest in comparison.
However, the expectations are that both video and chatbots will continue to grow in popularity, with 2021 likely to be a breakthrough year for both as service channels, as customers grow increasingly accustomed to using them to resolve service queries.
The bots met extreme conversational demand in a time when human teams were in extremely short supply.
For chatbots, this was highlighted by the decision by the WHO and CDC to install chatbots on their websites to provide up-to-date information on the coronavirus.
Whereas large-scale implementations of chatbots have often been much-maligned, the more focused use of bots by the WHO and CDC were instead praised for their success. The WEF now predicts that the use of chatbots will continue to grow after the pandemic – particularly in industries such as healthcare.
“Conversational technology (and chatbots) has 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.”
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.
Video as the norm
Conversely, with regards to video, the expectation is that the exponential rise in video conferencing use in 2020 will translate into a rise in video call use for customer service and support queries in 2021, just as with chatbots.
New research from Webhelp has found that video will see an 89% growth in use in the UK alone. The research found that customers were more likely to want to use video when dealing with insurance claims, accessing hardware and technical support and when entering into high value sales and mortgage conversations.
Consumer behaviours are understandably continuing to change dramatically as a direct result of the pandemic.
25% of the 6,000 consumers surveyed for Webhelp's research also said they would switch to a different brand if that brand offered video chat as an additional channel for sales and customer service, and that even in a post-pandemic world, they were likely to continue turning to video service in the future.
“As we go into 2021, consumer behaviours are understandably continuing to change dramatically as a direct result of the pandemic,” says Vincent Tachet, Group CIO of Webhelp, in commenting on the findings.
“Alongside improvements in technology, this is making video chat more accessible for consumers and more successful for brands, if used in the right context.
“Video chat makes full use of the capabilities of the technology devices now available to consumers and agents. The interaction itself can take many forms. For example, customers can share their cameras to help identify technical issues, or agents can co-browse with the user to show product features or benefits. This can help reduce overall contact time and therefore cost-to-serve or increase the opportunity for sales conversion and additional revenue - whilst also helping take the experience to the next level for brands.”
As with their failures in previous years, experience will be key in determining whether consumers really take to chatbots and video calls this time around.
Indeed, Forrester fired a warning shot in an April 2019 report highlighting that new service channels such as chatbots and video would live or die by the quality of the experience, and that personalisation was a central tenet to ensuring customers were satisfied.
“Customers expect easy, effective interactions that are highly personal and contextual to their current needs,” the Forrester Opportunity Snapshot report explains.
“Personalisation is a key tenet of great customer experiences. But, in order to truly elevate what is often at best a mundane conversation, and at worst a terribly frustrating experience, CX teams need the right tools to craft compelling experiences.”
The report also states that if brands truly want to provide a satisfying, personalised experience via these channels, service and CX leaders may need to bypass their IT departments in order to do so.
“CX teams must rely on scarce IT resources in order to do their job, causing companies to fall behind in meeting customer expectations of personalised service.
“As a result, customers become frustrated with their experiences and ultimately abandon the brand — negatively affecting top-line revenue. In order to find success, firms must invest in tools that empower business users to create personalised [chatbot and video] experiences without the IT dependence.”
Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.