To Bot or Not to Bot. Here Come the Chatbots

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Donna Peeples, CCO, Pypestream

How intelligent automation can improve the customer experience for brands

The bot economy has arrived. These days, chatbots are on the tip of everyone’s tongue and at our fingertips. Easier to build and distribute than mobile apps, bots are invading the mobile messaging platforms of choice for consumers today.

While it’s still early, thousands of bots are now available. Consider the fact that Facebook Messenger had zero bots in February of 2016 and by November of this year had over 34,000. Today bots allow consumers to do everything from call an Uber, book a flight or make a restaurant reservation, to review an e-commerce order or ask for the latest news or weather forecast.

While many bots are more annoying than helpful, 2017 represents the turning point where we’ll see more companies leverage bots for customer service and to aid consumers in making buying decisions. That could mean fewer Google searches for consumers in the future, allowing them to get the information or help they need directly from brands in a more conversational and engaging way.

Chatbots offer brands a chance to be where consumers are: messaging. While smartphone owners only use a handful of apps, messaging apps are the platform of choice for consumers with more than 2.5 billion global users this year. And this trend is set to continue, with messaging apps now outpacing social media networks in growth.

Without a doubt, mobile messaging is a channel brands absolutely must embrace. And chatbots, if done the right way, offer businesses an opportunity to create a better real-time experience for customers. That said, not all examples of chatbots we’re seeing right now are good ones.  In the case of Microsoft’s Tay earlier this year, we saw how disastrous an open-ended AI bot system can be. Tay showed us what can go wrong when there are no guardrails in place to prevent comments outside the scope of what would be helpful to a customer.

As we head into 2017, one of the biggest misconception about chatbots is they can answer anything and everything. The belief that automating conversations in an open-ended way will in itself add value for customers. The reality is the most effective bots are purpose-built to solve very specific problems for customers–making common customer service requests and commerce easier, while ensuring customer privacy.

In other words, less is more. The focus of any bot should be intelligent automation of existing business processes delivered in a conversational way. And it’s critical to keep the customer experience in mind.

Delivering a great experience through intelligent automation

At the end of the day, chatbots should improve customer service, save customers time or help them with their buying decisions - such as customizing a product order or helping with a specific request. The experience and use case has to make sense and add value to the conversations customers are already having. How will a bot relate to customers? What specific problems will it solve? How will it improve existing processes for customer service, communication and commerce?

The ideal approach is to analyze customer communication and transactional processes, then identify areas where automation is both easy and effective. An example of this is the range of frequently asked questions that require a repeated and often scripted response from a live agent. Instead of having the customer go through the process of speaking with an agent, a chatbot can easily handle this conversation and transform an otherwise annoying experience.

Solving for these low-hanging-fruit issues first with bots allows brands to learn how to effectively automate their business, and over time they can increase the complexity. But keeping it simple is key, initially. We’re only just starting to see the ways in which chatbots can improve customer relationships. Any new technology needs to be implemented strategically and mastered over time, in gradual increments. Trying to do too much, too soon, often results in poor customer experiences.

Our approach at Pypestream reflects this philosophy. When we deploy bots for businesses we assess specific conversations and look for the repeatable interactions and apply business rules that a chatbot can handle with ease. From there, we grow and expand the chatbot’s capability using both business and behavioral data. Eventually, the chatbot can handle the majority of conversations allowing for lightning fast interactions and happy customers.

Customer service: the sweet spot for bots

Customer service is a natural for chatbots. Most often we see about 80-90% of customer service inquiries are for the same issues and require the same responses. These repetitive interactions are easily automated and streamlined with chatbots. The desired result is a reduction in operational costs for businesses while improving the speed and efficiency of customer service. In addition, chatbots can be triggered to proactively address real-time issues avoiding the costs of inbound calls. For example, alerts to a cable outage with instructions on how to reset the modem; where is my insurance claim in process and when can I expect my payment or storm notifications with safety instructions around down power lines and updates on when power will be restored.

Given how fresh chatbot technology is right now, the best outcomes are those that combine bots with humans. This is particularly true for customer service interactions. It’s difficult to predict or plan for every potential customer inquiry. Therefore, live agents are still needed to field the questions and inquiries that fall outside of a chatbot’s parameters - the more complex, higher touch interactions.

Overall though, for customers, the ideal experiences with businesses are intuitive and easy. The less friction, the better. That’s the central idea for the use of bots: convenience. When customers send a message to businesses to resolve problems, schedule appointments and make secure payments, the customer service experience is streamlined, frictionless and, well, easy.

Expect chatbots to continue to grow in popularity

Mobile messaging is steadily becoming the most popular means of communicating, as indicated by the staggering number of people on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other p2p applications. Chatbots offer a way for businesses to enter the messaging era and join the conversation. New platforms will emerge to support issues of privacy and security that are so essential to customer communication. But ultimately, as investment in the technology increases, we can expect to see more companies ditching traditional communication models for messaging.

If done the right way, conversational technology and bots have the potential to make a dramatic and positive impact on the customer experience, but only if brands take the right approach through intelligent automaton.