In my opinion: time to get real about chatbots, says VoiceSage

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VoiceSage’s Lee Trenam discusses why naive AI hype will hamper the reception of this useful technology

Trenam: chatbots are a useful support for the contact centre not a replacement

Seventy-eight percent of European brands recently contacted by Oracle say they expect to provide customer experiences through virtual reality in the next four years. 80% expect to serve customers through chatbots in the same timeframe. And the chatbot market itself is set to explode by 2025, to over $1.25bn, say researchers.

Welcome to a new era of chatbots.

Chatbots are the most immediate and practical application of Artificial Intelligence ideas to customer service in the retail space and are beginning to be implemented by large and small brands alike. It’s important, however, that their limitations are thoroughly understood before embracing the medium.

We hear a lot about the benefits of chatbots in brand outreach after all. However I wonder if Gartner might not say it’s climbing fast up its famous ‘hype cycle’ of ‘inflated expectations’?

Don’t P45 the contact centre just yet

Over-hyping has negative effects, and too many premature uses of chatbots in retail has, in many cases, disappointed brands. They have piled in and used them to largely replace humans (one guesses for cost/replacement issues) instead of augmenting them.

We’ll get there of course, and it’s a matter of when, not if. As one commentator puts it, “The impact of artificial intelligence on contact center operations will be significant… automated bots that naturally interact with callers will initially reduce, and eventually eliminate, all but the most complex human agent interactions during the next decade”.

So chatbots will replace a great deal of what a current contact centre agent does today. But that’s at least five years away. As evidenced by the large brands and social media giants such as Twitter and Airbnb who are successfully using them. So, there’s no question that chatbots aren’t a really useful technology, but it’s just not correct to think they can replace all your staff today.

That’s certainly not what those big brands are doing, either – go and see on their sites to witness exemplary chatbot experience.

In contrast, there are other brands’ sites where you experience a very ropey chatbot experience – and then you’ll see why we still need humans around.

Automate – but step by step

As with any customer channel, you need to do this right – and the way the customer wants. Customers are adept at spotting over-eager AIs. If a chatbot fails to help you find out if your delivery will come in on time, the experience becomes a negative one, no matter how attractive the emojis and the presentation on screen.

Brands pushing too hard to automate too much of the customer outreach process – seeking cost-savings and efficiency – will face a backlash.

Yes, brands are correct to value the concept of automating some of the outreach process, and the efficiency increases that follow due to agents being moved to higher value work. But in the same way we need to exercise some scepticism about any headlines predicting a robot takeover tomorrow, organisations also need to look to the right use of AI in customer service.

Use the optimal channel, for the customer you’re speaking to now

Chatbots are useful as a support for the contact centre, not a replacement. So look to employ them to automate simple, repetitive tasks, or as a fall-back, but it would be foolish to adopt them too quickly. Never make them the only arrow in your proactive customer service tool box.

After all, when a complaint comes in, for example, you would never want this sort of contact to be managed by an impersonal medium like a robot, but routed through to a concerned, responsive contact centre team member to address the service users’ issues there and then. What’s more text seems to be getting ever more useful and more central to our lives, in particular for younger people; visual elements and hyperlinks can be added for choosing a delivery slot, or to make an instant payment.

The way ahead for the retailer is to keep SMS, voice and mail at the heart of the strategy – and don’t get too distracted by any claims that are either just too previous, or which we don’t need to worry about yet.

Lee Trenam is head of sales at VoiceSage (www.voicesage.com), a leader in customer contact technology. With 20 years experience in the Customer Contact and Customer Experience (CC/CX) space Lee is passionate and driven to help organisations across the private and public sectors offer disruptive and engaging solutions to drive better relationships with their customers and citizens.