To chatbot or not? Can automation boost response time and consumer trust?
Imagine this common scenario: A dissatisfied customer takes to social media to complain about receiving terrible customer service from a brand
A simple and unapologetic "Thanks" is all they receive in response
The customer asks: "This is a bot, right?" but the conversation with the brand ends then and there, until another social media user notices the faux pas and circulates to her friends or followers on the platform.
The emergence of this style of response programming — often referred to as chatbots, or simply "bots" — has become an attractive solution for brands looking to expedite their customer service efforts on social media, and on their websites.
Before bots become universally accepted, however, brands need to work out a few kinks. On one hand, bots represent an opportunity to compete with industry rivals by being faster on social media. On the other, an over-reliance on this technology can damage brand perception and credibility.
In a digital and mobile world, where consumers demand situation-aware, empathetic customer service, one misstep like the one mentioned above can quickly get out of hand. Consumers just don't have the patience for tone-deaf replies; for them, switching brands is incredibly easy. And when they switch, they have incredible power to bring their friends along with them.
The real-time challenge
Chatbots aren't solely used to automate social media responses. They're popping up more and more in the corner of e-commerce sites, asking if there's anything they can help you with.
For example, travel-booking site Booking.com uses chatbots for a variety of functions, including an in-destination travel-planning assistant that it released in July 2016.
David Peller, director of strategic partnerships for Booking.com, believes developing mobile messaging platforms is the key to addressing the rapid-satisfaction needs of customers. "The need for instant gratification extends to all of our customer touchpoints, and if we aren't thinking about how to handle customers in real-time through the technology and platform of their choice, we're missing out on a key opportunity for engagement, guest satisfaction and importantly, loyalty," he says.
Chatbots help to meet those expectations by allowing a brands' social channels to have the appearance of being staffed by someone — or at least something — that can handle a customer's question, comment or issue at any time of day.
But Peller cautions that brands must ensure the continued quality of service. In the end, it's all about the customer. "So often lost in this digital conversation, when we're thinking about the web or mobile technology, is who we're here to serve and how we provide a unique experience that reflects our brand and our business through the technology that we deliver," he says.
The human-machine balance
Nicholas Key, CEO of travel-software company 15Below, says technology can help address an organization's staffing limitations, while maintaining a strong customer service standard. "I'm a firm believer that ‘anything is possible' with technology and that the business should drive technology, not vice versa," Key says. Automated systems are typically available 24/7, can cut response times down to a few seconds, allowing customers to avoid waiting in queues and providing access to extensive data to better the customer experience, he says.
However, Key emphasizes that balancing automated systems with other customer support is crucial and that bots and staff need to be trained to offer the same service and advice.
Inadvertently giving customers conflicting information on different channels, for example, creates confusion and can make exchanges less efficient. "The implementation of automated systems must be done taking a holistic approach. Otherwise, you risk reducing the customer experience by the very processes which were designed to improve it," Key says. If customers get confused by bot responses, they'll reach out via other channels, quickly wiping out any efficiencies gained, says Key. "I believe a combined approach to automation and human contact should always be considered."
Empathy is difficult to teach a bot
Bots may help boost the response time and stretch the hours of availability, but many consumers are skeptical. What's often missing from the bot-customer exchange is something that is hard for a machine to emulate: empathy.
There may come a time when bots are empathetic enough to serve customers independent of humans. That time, however, is not here yet. To counter a lack of empathy, some chatbots that appear ‘fully automated' may still benefit from some human assistance behind the scenes.
For example, some bots are programmed to defer to a human in the background if they can't provide a sufficient answer, says Mira Perry, an analyst for market-research firm IDC Canada who tracks the evolution of automation response. "So at times, there is a human involved in the bot experience, without the customer knowing," she says.
This stopgap measure exists for several reasons. One is to make sure replies are both accurate and empathetic. Another is because of consumer distrust for the technology, particularly among certain demographics. "Gen-Z customers are, studies show, looking for secure methods of communication," Key says.
Waiting for an advancement in technology
While technology promises more empathetic and secure bots in the future, humans continue to help customers with more complex questions and issues, at least for the time being. Perry says it may be another decade before better bot technology is fully developed and adopted.
Though the term artificial intelligence (AI) is often used today to refer to bots, contemporary bots are not AI. Rather, they are a small part of the evolution of cognitive technologies. "Sentiment analysis, natural language processing, question-and-answer processing and dialogue management, just to name a few," Perry points out. "As each technology improves, the bot experience will improve."
Today's bots are expedient. But it remains well-trained, empathetic human beings who listen, care and preserve brand reputations. While chatbots may eventually pass the Turing test — a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human, Perry cautions against an over-reliance on the technology. "Any company, large or small, should continue to ensure an available and competent human point of contact," she says.