Chatbots are not a new idea. The roots go back as far as the 1950s when Alan Turing confirmed that machines have the ability to respond intelligently. However, the world did not know of them in their current form until Siri caught everyone’s fancy in 2010. Now in 2019, we have become used to the idea of interacting with chatbots in every walk of life from “Alexa, wake me up at 5 a.m.” to “Google, tell me a joke” to something as mundane as “buy toilet paper.”
Chatbots, or conversational agents, are programmed on simple rules or AI logic to mimic written or spoken human speech. Chatbots simulate a nearly real human-like interaction. The Internet is filled with a range of chatbots from an IFTTT or “if this then that” bot to a natural language processing and very evolved artificial intelligence implemented bot. Today, WayBlazer can help you plan your trip, Casper can help you get through the night if you are having trouble falling asleep, Endurance can be a companion to Dementia patients, MedWhat can help diagnose a medical condition – the list is endless. It is fascinating to note that Siri evolved from a humble ALICE (Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity ) – one of the first to be live online, way back in 1995! Though limited in its functionality, ALICE inspired the various versions of chatbots alive and active today – and we can’t seem to get through the day without at least one interaction with the conversational agents.
Chatbots and chat platforms
Why have chatbots suddenly become so popular? While the bots have evolved over the years, live chat integration is probably one of the biggest factors for their increasing popularity and usefulness in business scenarios. Live chats connect a customer to a business real-time. Chatbots can live within chat platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, or Slack providing a seamless experience of a “transaction” to the end user. The transaction can be a transaction of information or even a real commercial transaction. Before live chat was an option, you could either email a company with questions and wait for the standard “two business days” response time or phone a company during their working hours. None is helpful if you need immediate information about your decision. Our worlds have become highly connected now and the immediate response has become a cultural expectation. Chatbots are highly convenient in these situations as they can execute specific tasks within a messaging platform over a natural conversation, making it a very personal and seamless experience for the customer. People have moved away from email — the 25 and under generation spends two hours on email for every eight hours on instant messaging, and the statistics are not too different as we go up the age curve.
Chatbots are immediate, engaging, and available 365 days a year and at any time of the day, and always have all the information required for decision making. Users like the convenience of the last mile in the same platform where they spend their maximum time — a messenger platform. Chatbots can customize the conversation in real-time based on the user’s input and preference, thus making them very effective for the user, unlike emails. You can also do more sophisticated tasks like drip feed a user with valuable information in a sequence of small chunks and gather data for analytics in a non-intrusive and seamless manner. Most importantly, unlike an actual human, a chatbot can have multiple conversations and all of them effectively and as engagingly — and at the same time!
Best at specific tasks
Chatbots function fantastically on a specific task — book an appointment at a specific time or prequalify a lead based on a list of criteria or request a replacement for a damaged product for online order. They are great for routine tasks and, to address specific questions with specific answers. Chatbots can handle these mundane tasks of information gathering with impressive precision. That’s where they become very convenient tools to free up time and resources. Chatbots work as efficient receptionists on your website and app — it would warmly welcome your visitors and handhold them to their destination on the website, answering every query along the way and even predicting the help a visitor may require. A chatbot can then go on to become your personal health assistant — helping you choose a doctor based on your manifested symptoms and then book an appointment at a convenient time. And not just medical appointments, chatbots can help you book a ticket for your planned trip. If you use the same website for your grocery, a chatbot would be happy to recreate your last order or would also suggest items that you missed ordering.
Chatbots can be great account clerks as well. They can help you retrieve your billing dates, amounts due, delivery status and even reset passwords. Chatbots are efficient on the shop floor — both as salespeople and as shopping assistants for your online showrooms. They will promptly recommend the matching top for the trouser that you just added to the shopping cart, will initiate a conversation based on your browsing behavior, or even inform you of a perfect deal that is available on a certain combination. Chatbots as shopping assistants can make your checkout process very prompt with just a few descriptive words about the shopping list. The customer definitely finds this fluid and conversational interaction engaging in-store experience. And just in case you want to initiate a return or edit a subscription or update your account details, chatbots can make this process absolutely prompt and hassle-free, based on a few standard questions.
One would think the fantasy of robots replacing humans has finally materialized. When chatbots are doing so many things, why would one need human interaction — an email actually written instead of a templatized response or a phone call that probably suggests a song based on the vibes of the conversation? (Well, apparently Mitsuku does!) However, chatbots so far have evolved only to replace the pieces of work that humans do not like to do anyway — mundane and repetitive tasks. Chatbots fail when multiple dots have to be connected to form a meaningful purpose of the conversation. Natural language processing has also not evolved enough to equip chatbots to fathom the intent of a conversation, which goes a long way to determine the effectiveness of the conversation itself.” Show me some cheerful options for my kids’ room décor” has way too many attributes for a chatbot to comprehend to suggest anything relevant. “I am interested in buying a beautiful home” may have the chatbot completely fumbling as the interpretation of “beautiful” will be only based on past data fed to it. Even if the chatbot did manage to achieve a “hit” on the recommendation of the “beautiful” home, currently it does not have the ability to weave together the multiple coordination required to complete the transaction.
While chatbots are good at fixing a specific appointment at a specific time, they currently do not have the ability to comprehend the criticality of the situation and prioritize the appointment. They may also not be able to suggest the right doctor if the symptoms are not common or misleading. “What are your symptoms?” will fetch answers such as “I have high temperature” and may lead the chatbot to find a general surgeon while on the other hand, the patient may need immediate emergency support perhaps because of a post-procedure complication. Such interactions can be really frustrating. In fact in such sensitive and critical situations, the cold, scripted responses can harm customer satisfaction — and harm the customer. Chatbots are also not equipped enough to drive coordination between different teams to resolve a situation.
Chatbots need their human partners
Chatbots are definitely the future, and they are already transforming customer service. However, they can be utilized in their peak capacity only with the support of their human partners. Chatbots will work best in partnership with humans, and not alone. Empathy and connection are the most critical requirements of an effective human conversation. While it may take the chatbots a while to acquire those skills, they can continue to do what they are best at — perform specific tasks, and enable their human partners at each step of a complex problem-solving process, making the entire process very efficient.
Featured image: Pixabay