When we look back, even just a few years, options for using Artificial Intelligence were noticeably more limited than what is available today…

Chatbots in business: the changing face of customer interaction

When we look back, even just a few years, options for using Artificial Intelligence were noticeably more limited than what is available today. If you were to have an online conversation with a computer five or ten years ago then the chances are you’d have found the experience more than a little underwhelming and probably not particularly effective in mimicking and effectively delivering human conversation.

Times have changed, as has the sophistication of the computing technology behind AI chatbots – it has come on in leaps and bounds. In such a relatively short period of time the technological world has been witness to significant advancements within AI due to the improved intelligence of machine learning algorithms. And so, as a result, we are now at an exciting technological AI crossroads where we find ourselves closer than ever to reaching a point whereby a customer will find it increasingly difficult to determine whether they are chatting to a bot or a human.

What is a chatbot?

A chatbbot is a piece of computing technology, a service that is powered by artificial intelligence. Chatbots enable us to connect and interact with a real-time chat interface – they are often, in business settings, used as a virtual customer service agent. A chatbot introduces a range of opportunities for an organization from saving money to improving customer care scores, which in turn helps to reinforce positive brand sentiment. Some bots may run on simpler automated answers to deal with only the most commonly asked questions, while others are developed to a higher level of sophistication.

Bots in business

Businesses worldwide are beginning to embrace and capitalize on this opportunity to more efficiently communicate, serve and advise their customer base – chatbot use in externally facing customer service functions has rocketed in recent months. However, chatbots are no longer used exclusively for external communications; bots are becoming increasingly more popular in the streamlining of internal processes and functions, and to help in the delivery and effectiveness of training.

Bots and brand

Use of chatbots, and the AI technology behind the bot, undeniably presents a range of pros – everything from improved response rates to slicker processes – but we must remember that bots also pose a few potential cons that every tech-savvy business chief really should consider before investing in new chatbot technology.

Without doubt, the single biggest consideration is the big ‘B’: brand. How does the use of a bot pose a risk to the brand you’ve established, a brand your customers have become connected to, a brand that has developed well-earned respect in its industry? Well, the use of AI intrinsically changes the provision of services. It shifts how sale processes happen – from beginning to end – and impacts how a business markets its products or services. That’s a wide scope of impact making it absolutely vital that organizations invest time and money wisely to fine-tune their chatbots before embarking on their latest AI-driven project.

Though, it is a fine line. AI is essential to developing a comprehensive understanding about brand perception and insights into how your marketing campaigns are being received by your target markets – this is particularly true of AI use on social media. But as your customer, am I happy to talk to a computer? For some, the prospect of talking to a computer rather than a fellow human feels impersonal and uncaring. Say you’ve established a brand with an ethos that centers on personal service – perhaps your personal touch has been your unique selling point? It’s understandable that your customers may feel suddenly detached from the brand they’ve previously felt connected with.

From a business perspective, you’d be missing a trick if you overlooked the capabilities and cost saving opportunities that AI presents. After all, with your chatbot you could very easily and successfully handle hundreds, if not thousands, of customer service queries at the same time, and all without the need for a large call center set-up and the associated running costs. The saving is more than significant, it’s game-changing. So the gains from a business perspective are impressive but from the perspective of a customer it’s not clear what I gain by chatting to a bot. Do I receive a faster response? Is the bot conversation more useful to me? Do I find out more? The answer is possibly but not definitely – depending on the sophistication of the chatbot you’re working with – and herein lays one of the main obstacles to effective chatbot deployment in business today.

Top five benefits of using a Chatbot

  1. Cost saving –reduces the need for a large customer service focused workforce
  2. Improves productivity –bots can handle thousands of conversations simultaneously
  3. Increases customer satisfaction –shorter waiting times and a fast response keep customers happy
  4. Strengthens brand perception -bots help you place a great customer experience back into the heart of your business, which reflects very well on your brand
  5. Accessibility –bots work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Refocus customer thinking

How to overcome this issue of brand detachment? Organizations need to take the lead in pioneering a new way of thinking for a new era of business technology. The solution rests in effective communication. We know that the average customer simply wants good customer service. They want to connect with a business, ask a question and get an answer – the right answer – quickly. Your customers are likely to assume that a bot-led customer service function will offer inferior advice and present limited opportunity to ask additional follow-on questions, should they need to. By communicating to customers that your new chatbot is perfectly positioned to help answer queries quickly and concisely, that by using the chatbot they can expect to skip long queues and frustrating menu options, your transition from human to bot is simpler and less susceptible to poor uptake on roll-out.

Bots are smart

Central to the effective use of AI technology are aggregation and augmentation: concepts that introduce a degree of flexibility in how this technology is used. Instead of assuming a conversation can only take place between a human or a computer, AI and chatbots are used in unison to pull information from multiple conversations and actively learn from the insights they gain, ultimately improving their performance each and every time they operate.

And via augmentation we are able to utilize both human and bot to achieve the ultimate in customer service. Chatbots can be set-up to conduct routine conversations, answer simple, frequently asked questions and take electronic payments. A human customer service agent can then be available to handle only the most complex of customer queries. Similarly, thanks to the development of advanced sentiment analytics, bots are also able to identify when a customer becomes frustrated or angry, at which point the bot notifies its human equivalent to ensure a personal handling of the situation. Cost savings are still impressive and the balance between bot and human can help keep customer satisfaction high.

AI also allows for something called summarization – a function that enables bots to obtain, collate and utilize information quickly, such as business data and insights for internal-facing bots, and allows external-facing bots to prepare summarized information about products and services to keep the help function fast and efficient.

Every business needs a bot

Benefits to using chatbots are plentiful but among the more advanced capabilities that make bots appealing to businesses we find a host of logistical and operational benefits that make the day-to-day running of a business more effective. These benefits include a customer service function that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. There is no down time, no need to activate a ‘please call back’ message, and so there are no unhappy or disgruntled customers. And, secondly, unrivalled handling. Humans are great at many things but multi-tasking isn’t necessarily our strongest point. It is suggested that a human can concentrate on a maximum of four things at any one time, making call handling in a customer service center challenging. A bot, on the other hand, can hold conversations with hundreds or thousands of customers at the same time.

AI: growing in popularity

AI chatbots are becoming a popular feature in organizations large and small with recent research indicating that by early 2019 it is anticipated that a staggering 40% of organizations with over 500 employees will introduce chatbot technology to one or more business functions. This figure drops to 25% and 27% of mid and small size companies respectively, with one in four organizations planning to use bots to support team collaboration. Other uses indicated include voice to text dictation (46%), customer service (14%), and data analytics (10%). Impressive statistics that suggest the uptake of AI chatbots is beginning to accelerate simultaneously across a number of industries, irrespective of the size of the organization.

Chatbots of the future

With such advancements to chatbots in the space of just a few years, the future of the bot is open to immense possibility. Intricate and progressive algorithms currently being developed and tested bring to the fore the potential for a new level of artificial intelligence: bots that can be used in business settings to analyse and subsequently propose strategic moves to boost business performance and help tackle obstacles the business may be facing.

The sky is very much the limit when it comes to bots of the future. Many industry insiders are speculating at the vast potential of AI in the near future citing they expect bots to be advanced enough to help create and define not only marketing campaigns but the marketing messages that campaigns deliver, essentially uniting core strategy and hands-on delivery for the ultimate AI business assistant.

Others anticipate customer service bots being developed into what we could reasonably compare to management: bots that have the ability to assess and review requirements in real time, allocate resources to different business areas depending on current need, deal with and escalate customer issues accordingly and generally utilize sentiment analysis to a greater extent for optimum business results.

Okay, this is not where AI technology is just yet, but it’s on the horizon and the possibilities are beginning to seem impressive, exciting and, frankly, endless. AI chatbots and technology have such impressive scope to reinvent how we do business, how we communicate internally and externally, and how we reduce spend while improving customer service and internal processes, that business operations as we know it will change forever.

Making smart tech work for you

Research carried out by Gartner suggests that by 2020 85% of customer interactions will be managed by a bot as businesses rapidly prioritize an exploration of AI chatbots and how they could benefit them. Furthermore, Gartner’s latest CIO survey of 3160 CIOs identified that AI initiatives are one of their top five priorities fir 2018. And, with such a large scale uptake of bots it is sensible to anticipate that customers will soon grow to expect a bot interaction when they contact a company. Any organizations not prepared for rise of the bot ahead of time are likely to quickly look outdated and risk being perceived as a company that doesn’t take customer interaction seriously enough.

This new era of customer interaction will see organizations investing heavily in the research, creation and implementation of chatbot strategy – a strategy bespoke to their organization giving clear direction as to what their very own chatbot capabilities should be. With bots already placed in mainstream platforms such as Facebook Messenger and Slack, as well as in SMS, the scope for an organization to reach a new, bigger market is unprecedented.

Actioning your own chatbot project

Step one is to remember that AI chatbots are no longer just for the largest international organizations; they are accessible to businesses of all sizes. If you have the desire to introduce a bot into your organization, whether that is internal or external facing, it is achievable. The most ambitious organizations take the introduction of a chatbot system as an opportunity to redefine their communications offering, using their new bot as a way to better connect with customers and, let’s not forget, lower costs. But at the true heart of all chatbot implementation projects is innovation, exploration and an ambition to drive forward how your organization connects and utilizes technology on a daily basis. Will you use your bot to improve open rates? Maybe you are striving to achieve greater rates of engagement via your core communications avenues?  Or maybe you’re motivated by a need to bring better insight and data into, and extract from, your customer interactions?

Whatever your reasoning, whether it’s more important to your business to improve internal processes and functions or streamline the customer experience, take the time to define your goals, choose your channel for connecting the bot with customers or staff, and decide if you want to have your bot built from scratch. If you have the skillset in-house among your staff, then make the most of the understanding they have of your business. If not, call in experts who will guide you through each element and create something tailored to your needs. Begin your exploration and map out what your version of a chatbot looks like: before you know it you’ll be moving towards realizing your new – chatbot driven – future.

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