Customer service can make or break a business. Your customers expect you to be available, responsive, friendly and helpful, ideally 24 hours a day, or they'll go elsewhere. For years, companies have been searching for a way to streamline customer service, introducing contact centres, automated messaging services, and more recently using social media. Now, there's a new solution: chatbots.
Gartner has predicted that more than 85% of customer interactions won't involve a human by 2020 – that's just three years! While TechEmergence reckons that chatbots will be the number one consumer application of artificial intelligence (AI) in the next five years. Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella said recently that "chatbots are the new apps" and now an array of tech start-ups and big brands are getting on board.
What are they?
Chatbots are artificially intelligent computer programmes that can simulate a conversation with a human, just like a real person. They've been around in some form or another for a number of years, but have only recently become more sophisticated with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning. This enables them to develop an understanding of how language works, to learn continuously from new conversations and resolve problems by accessing this information. They've also been given the perfect outlet in the form of messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp, which are now used by more than 2.5 billion people around the world.
How are they being used?
Chatbots have been seized upon by tech giants as a way of putting brands directly in touch with their customers, bypassing the need for human intervention. Facebook launched a bot development platform for Messenger last April, enabling businesses to use its technology to communicate directly with their customers. Since the launch, more than 34,000 bots have come online.
Now plenty of other messaging services have followed suit including Kik, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Skype. The messaging platform Slack has also incorporated a number of chatbots, with the aim that these will eventually help clients to manage their calendars, to-do lists, schedule meetings and streamline other aspects of their businesses.
Using platforms such as Facebook messenger, various forward-thinking brands are already introducing chatbots into their customer service approach. For example, the Guardian introduced its chatbot in November last year, as a way for customers to access the latest headlines and manage their subscriptions more easily. The travel brand Skyscanner also has its own chatbot, which will help you find flights without having to search yourself.
There are also some really cool chatbot powered start-ups appearing, such as DoNotPay, the world's first robot-powered lawyer; Joy, which helps you track your moods; and Niki, a personal assistant that will help you book cabs, recharge phone credit, and even order takeaway.
The possibilities are huge, particularly as the bots are learning from every conversation, taking on more complex tasks and conversations over time. They're being tipped to revolutionise a range of industries, particularly those that rely on high levels of regular customer contact, such as banking, insurance and utilities. Chances are it won't be long before we'll be able to check our bank accounts, make insurance claims and give our gas or electricity readings to chatbots.
The beauty lies in the simplicity, giving customers a direct line to their service provider, without having to go online or wait on hold for the call centre – instead you just send a quick message to a friendly bot. The anticipated cost savings are obviously a big driver, with less need for human representatives. But many believe that chatbots will also increase the quality of service, with queries answered more quickly, consistently and within the brand tone of voice that a company has developed.
What about the downsides?
Chatbots are by no means perfect yet, and early examples have come up against some teething problems, such as not understanding or responding correctly to questions and conversations. But developers say these should start to disappear as the bots have absorbed more conversational experience and information. However, it will be a while before they'll have the capacity to replace humans, and even then, more complex queries are likely to require a human on hand as back-up.
Another big issue is security and data protection, which would need to be considered if the chatbots are to start dealing with personal or financial details. To function, chatbots need to absorb and store masses of data from our everyday lives. Businesses and consumers would need to be sure that this information isn't going to end up in the wrong hands.
Does my business need one?
There is never any guarantee that new technology is going to last and make it into the mainstream, but chatbots certainly look like a good bet. And the great thing is that you can start off small, using them to answer simple queries initially, with the potential to increase their responsibilities in the future. The question is, are you ready to hire your first digital employee?!