The rise of the robots is happening all around us, right now. But don’t fear - it’s not the dystopian future grimly predicted by the Terminator series (at least, not yet). It’s more likely that your next interaction with a robot will be when one answers your customer service questions, in the guise of a chatbot.

What is a chatbot?

According to chatbots.org, a conversational agent (more commonly known as a chatbot) is ‘a software program which interprets and responds to statements made by users in ordinary natural language. It integrates computational linguistics techniques with communication over the internet’.

(That sounds a bit like it was written by a robot, so in more simple terms, it’s software that people can interact with conversationally.)

Chatbots process the user’s question or request before responding according to algorithms that interprets and identifies what the user said, infers what they mean and/or want, and determine a series of appropriate responses based on this information.

We’ve all interacted with chatbots - probably sometimes when we’re not even aware of it. Their ability to mimic human speech in order to facilitate a conversation or interaction with a real person is improving all the time. At the moment, chatbots are used most commonly in customer service, taking on jobs traditionally undertaken by people like first line support and general enquiries. They’re already being used in many messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Viber.

Part of the reason they’re becoming more prevalent is that it’s far easier to set them up - it’s no longer the case that high level dev or other technical skills are required. For example, you’re able to create a chatbot in FB Messenger, and there are websites that allow (albeit quite basic) chatbots to be created with drag and drop blocks and ‘if then’ logic.

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Why are chatbots important?

We live in an age where consumers and customers expect information quickly. This need for speed has led organisations to turn to bot technology and voice search. While the tech is still relatively new, it’s improving very quickly. A combination of different AI like natural language processing, machine learning and semantic understanding are all available for chatbot tech.

Chatbot technology improve interactions between people and the services they want to access, enhancing the customer experience. They also offer companies the chance to improve the customer engagement process and business efficiency by lowering the cost of customer service.

A human element is still necessary, however. The robots are not quite ready to be simply switched on and left to work on their own - we still need to configure, define and optimise the chatbot’s system and processes.

So what are the things you need to take into account if you’re considering implementing chatbot technology into your business?

Pros and cons of chatbots

Pros

Unlike pesky human staff who occasionally need to eat, sleep or go to the toilet, chatbots are always available. Chatbots provide consistent answers to questions using good and responsive customer service. Customer satisfaction is typically increased as people can get the answers they want, quickly. The lack of a human element leads to reduced labour costs. They can be used for a multitude of purposes.

Cons

While the tech is improving all the time, sometimes bots only provide a limited number of responses. If people are not able to get the answers they seek, it can lead to frustration (if anyone has had to ask Alexa or Siri the same question 5 times, you’re probably familiar with this). While we’ve discussed the cost-effective nature of chatbots, the more sophisticated ones are still expensive.

How to use chatbots

It’s really important to understand the questions your customers are asking, and test and optimise your chatbots so their responses make sense and are able to answer these questions. This is key because chatbots can be as frustrating as being on hold to a call centre if they’re unable to answer questions.

Create a conversational workflow, monitor how it works and tweak it the more it’s used.

Our advice is to also make it clear that your customers are talking to a bot. It’s better to be up front rather than trying to pretend the customer is talking to a real person.

Information bots

Informational bots connect users to data in order to provide an answer to a question and can provide basic information on a wide range of topics. Common uses that people are likely most familiar with are bots that answer questions about the weather, sports, or news.

A good example of an informational bot is Kayak for Facebook Messenger, which answers questions in order to formulate an efficient travel plan for the user. It can search thousands of flights, hotels, activities and other options using Kayak’s huge database of travel options.

Utility (or task) bots

Task bots automate processes and improve user experiences. This type of bot can perform a variety of functions that extends beyond answering simple questions.

Slack, the comms and messaging app, is a great example of a service that makes use of task bot tech in the form of ‘Slackbot’. As well as being able to understand and answer questions that are typed into Slack, Slackbot also has queries that individual businesses can configure (for example, here at Eastside Co, it reminds us of the WiFi password when asked and tells staff off for using bad language. (We also set it up so if anyone talks about Christmas before December, they’re reminded that it is not Christmas yet.) It also integrates with emails, calendar, the shared company drive and social networks.

Other examples of task bots include Domino's chatbot (‘Dom’) which is able to remember and re-order customers’ previous orders. The chatbot has the ability to track the food order from the kitchen to the customer’s home and estimate the time of delivery. It can be used through FB messenger, as an Amazon Alexa Skill, and through SMS.

China’s WeChat messaging platform integrates many hundreds of utility bots to complete a mind-boggling amount of tasks. The system can be used to pay bills, book doctors’ appointments, order food, and transfer money.

Conclusion - are chatbots for you?

It’s clear that chatbots have a growing use in the business world, and as AI and machine learning improves, they’re only going to become more common. As with any other marketing tactic, you need to consider whether chatbots are the right thing for your business and customers. Remember that the starting point is the bot’s purpose: it needs to provide a solution and help your customers, so ask yourself if implementing a bot would fulfil this role before you decide to add one to your business. We've recommended live chat systems for clients so if you'd like any advice or marketing support, drop us a line and a human or a bot will come back to you.*

*It will be a human.