The business community has
benefited greatly from advancements in digital communication technologies.
Today, there’s practically no end to the ways companies and brand
representatives can engage with, troubleshoot for, market to or otherwise stay
in touch with their fans and customers.
Chatbots are a relatively new
addition to a bundle of tools that already included email, video chat, SMS,
social networking and more. Chatbots are the next logical step in many ways when
it comes to keeping businesses and customers in constant and easy contact. But
they’re not for everybody. Below are some of the advantages of — plus one or
two warnings about — chatbots to help you decide if it’s the right time and the
right tool for your company.
What’s a Chatbot?
This word is one of those terms
that pretty much gives it all away up front: A chatbot is an audio-based or
text-based assistant that can autonomously help customers find answers to
questions, troubleshoot problems or carry out other business-related tasks,
such as ordering or re-ordering products, changing payment information,
inquiring about or renewing subscriptions and memberships and much more.
Command-based chatbots are
relatively rudimentary but still deceptively “intelligent.” They can
respond to customer inquiries using heuristics that match replies with the most
relevant topics or sub-menus for the customer.
On the other hand, AI-based
chatbots are more sophisticated but also have a further way to go before
they’re available to a wider array of businesses and more consistently able to
reply accurately to any inquiry. But chatbots powered by AI are undoubtedly
already showing their potential: Thanks to their use of natural language
processing, they can reply “from scratch” instead of using canned
responses. They can even become better over time at picking up meaning and
intent from conversations with human callers.
With the different types of
chatbots a little better understood, let’s move on to the main question, which
is whether or not chatbots are worth the investment for your business. For a
start, some industries are simply a likelier fit than others.
If Chatbots Make Sense for Your Industry
Chatbots are a relatively new
concept, but they do already exist out in the wild. And there are several
frontrunners when it comes to the types of industries that are well-suited to
adopting chatbots. Some of them are:
- Banking and financial
Based on polling, some 80 percent of business representatives would be interested in bringing chatbots into the fold at
their company. But early popularity in the industries mentioned above already
indicates which use-cases might yield the best results and return on
investment. In hospitality, guests and travelers often require nearly instant
solutions for checking into hotels and lodging, boarding airplanes and other
conveyances, choosing venues, organizing transportation for meetings and
conventions and a multitude of other tasks that have to happen at the speed of
In financial services, chatbots
can help even regional banks and nonprofit credit unions provide members with
account information or help them tailor their retirement or college savings. In
retail and services environments, chatbots can pick up some of the slack during
high-traffic times of the day or season by taking orders, pointing customers to
what they’re looking for and more.
The point is, there might be use
cases in your industry, and there might not be. Industries that depend on
timely, accurate, always-available customer interactions appear to be early
favorites, but as the technology improves, applications will undoubtedly
continue to appear almost everywhere.
If You (and Your Customers) Value Time
On the customer and the company
side of things, the first major advantage of chatbots is that they’re on
standby 24 hours a day and don’t take a single day off during the year,
provided there aren’t any technical snafus behind the scenes.
Allowing customers to have their
questions answered on their own time is great already, but chatbots also save
time for the company by providing an automated solution to the
“problem” of answering common inquiries all day long. Both parties
can breathe easier. Customers know they won’t have to try their luck calling
back during business hours or trawling through a website for answers, and
businesses know their employees are a little freer to respond to other, more
urgent demands on their time.
There are one or two caveats
when it comes to using chatbots in extremely customer-facing industries. Human
beings know — or can be trained by locals — to respect cultural taboos and
avoid words or phrases that might cause offense in another country or region.
The problem of maintaining
cultural propriety during international affairs is
not a new problem. But while it seems to make sense to turn chatbots into
public liaisons in regions where you don’t have a strong employee presence to
process customer calls, those chatbots had better have been developed with
linguistic and cultural input from the region they’re intended to serve.
Being mindful of potential
cultural frictions and even the subtleties of respectful political correctness
is key to successfully using a chatbot to fill in your service gaps here and
If You Want Additional Insight Into Your User
The average interaction between
a human customer and a chatbot can yield a surprising amount of information
about your user base — too much, potentially, for a human operator to take in
all at once, much less record and pass on to interested parties.
A phone conversation is
practically analog compared with a chatbot chat when it comes to the potential
to take in information from your user base. When your customers interact with
your chatbot, with just a couple of simple questions and basic analytics,
you’ll come away with a greater understanding of how they use your products,
where common sources of frustration are coming from and nitty-gritty details.
These details include their location, the device type they’re using to contact
you or interact with your services and other factors that might be of interest
to your marketing team, your R&D team or both.
Chatbots are here already — and companies are figuring out
how best to put them to work. By 2021, say industry experts, the chatbot
“market” — including third-party cloud-based chatbot solutions —
should reach a total value of $15.8 billion. That’s a ringing
endorsement. Just remember that chatbots are a product like any other, and
computing their probable ROI isn’t that much different, no matter what else
you’re promised by a software vendor. In some cases, the human touch might just
be the better choice for your business anyway — you’ll need to decide based on
your unique circumstances.
Bio: Nathan Sykes is the editor
of Finding an Outlet, a source for the latest in IT and business news and