Customer services have been revolutionised on a regular basis since the late 1980s. Although, not all of us left hanging on the telephone, waiting for a helpful customer service advisor to finally answer our call might entirely feel that these changes have been for the good.
From super-sized UK call centres to the off-shore variety, exactly how beneficial these innovations have been is dubious to say the least.
These days it’s not only ‘the conversation’ that has gone online, it’s pretty much everything else as well. It seems almost inevitable that, eventually, artificial intelligence would be deployed to deal with customer interactions and that day has, more or less, come. The chatbot has been hailed as the low-cost customer service solution for nearly any size of firm.
What are the Benefits?
You can see the advantages almost instantly; chatbots don’t cost an arm, a leg or even minimum wages. They don’t rock up late on Monday morning complaining that they must be coming down with ‘something’ and they don’t take time off for sick, family emergencies or bereavement. They’re like real staff, or how real staff should be, in a perfect world. Or are they?
Chatbots are a fairly easy concept to get your head round and fall into the Ronseal inspired ‘what it says on the tin’ category of products or services. A chatbot is software that is designed to interact with human users and also to perform basic tasks. The bot is able to simulate conversations, originally using a set of rules and now with the added magic of AI. AI allows the chatbot to learn from interactions and, in theory at least, gives it the capability to manage more complex conversations and interactions and complete a wider range of relevant tasks.
Utilising AI can create chatbots that can pick up on a more nuanced level of conversation and respond more appropriately to us annoyingly emotional human beings. In the early stages of development of the AI-powered chatbot there were some glorious, spectacular fails. Microsoft launched ‘Tay’ into the balmy, if shark-infested, waters of Twitter in 2016. Unfortunately, but not unpredictably, within around 24 hours TAY had learned to swear like a trooper and had developed political opinions further to the right than you’d dare to imagine.
Despite this embarrassing glitch, Tay’s light-speed evolution from mild-mannered novelty to foul-mouthed fascist demonstrated two things: Twitter users should have a long hard think about how they act and, more relevantly, AI can learn, develop and respond at an extremely efficient rate.
The Always On Solution?
This is important in a world that (we’re told) is always on. Consumers expect you, or your staff, to be available 24/7 and 365 days a year. In this context chatbots can make a lot of sense. They can be constantly available, consumers can wave goodbye to excerpts of Vivaldi interrupted by irritating assurances that their call is important to you, and they are consistent. From both the customer and retailer’s point of view these two factors alone make chatbots a serious contender for that customer service role.
However, constant availability and consistency, while important, are not the only things that make for a good customer service experience. The ability to resolve complex issues is beyond the average Chatbot’s capabilities – although this will inevitably change in the coming years. So whilst chatbots can handle basic, general enquiries, human chat should still be considered as an important part of your strategy.
Who Loves a Chatbot?
Millennials; that’s the short answer. Your marketing team should be beaming with delight at this prospect. This demographic is, rightly or wrongly, the demographic to bag, as far as most marketing guys and gals are concerned. When it comes to interacting with tech there’s no denying that this group is not only turned on by tech but, importantly, they also can’t remember a world without.
Chatbots to the millennials are just another tool for interacting efficiently online and online is the world they know. This group is the first to have lived their lives online as much as off and they certainly have less fear of interacting in new ways compared to other older groups. From a marketing perspective this demographic has a disposable income, are high consumers and (dare we say it) more gullible and less worldly wise than older consumers. For a sales team, millennials are the equivalent of target practice – and cutting-edge tech will bring them firmly within your sights.
When it comes to general questions, site navigation or acting as ‘receptionist’ on your site, chatbots can be the ideal solution. They are more advanced now than a simple flow chart of yes and no questions and answers. However, they’re best suited to relatively basic customer service operations and simple transactions. Whilst they are rapidly advancing in the subtleties of communication with real people, with those frustratingly real emotions and senses of humour, they’re still learning. The basic end of the customer service scale is where they really belong right now.
Using real people to manage customer interactions at the more complex end of the scale – particular when things have gone ever-so-slightly pear-shaped – is by far the safest way of managing complex relationships with your customers or potential customers.
Generally, so far, apart from those early hiccups with Tay, customers seem to find chatbots extremely user-friendly. We’re not just talking about those bright-eyed, fresh faced millennials either. Consumers like chatbots for a number of reasons – their consistency and availability have already been mentioned above. But in addition, users enjoy the fact that chatbots tend to be accurate, patient and offer a smooth, prompt experience which can make interactions simple, hassle-free and, importantly, fast.
This works for both the company using chatbots and the customers that are being served. Using chatbots to deal with the basic stuff also frees up resources to focus on more important, or complex, aspects of running your business. Answering questions, providing information and taking contact details can all be achieved easily with chatbots, without tying up your staff who could be utilised better elsewhere.
Balancing The Bots And The Not-Bots
Robots are well on the way to taking over the world. However, since the dawn of the modern customer service age the frustrated cry of ‘all I want to do is talk to a real human being’ has rung around many a living room in the UK, and beyond. Humans love – and/or hate – other humans which is why in real world interactions, and even online interactions, the human touch can make all the difference.
Whilst many consumers will be happy to conduct basic transactions with a machine (we got used to ATMs pretty sharpish, after all) there are times where only the human touch will do. Trust is a big issue when conducting anything online and many consumers still prefer to put their faith in things they understand, however flawed. For the time being, at least, it seems the best approach to customer service solutions is to use the bots for the basics and keep humans for the quality interactions that will really win your customers over.