Are Chatbots the Best Way to Service Your Clients Online?

We often encounter chatbots—the catchall name for digital messaging software that interprets natural language (how we talk in real life) and responds with helpful information—as little boxes that pop up on our computer screens when we’ve dawdled too long on a sweater online.

Usually chatbots present themselves as a know-it-all avatar, be it a bespectacled owl or a sanguine-looking sloth, and include a text box in which shoppers can type and receive messages. Their primary function is to answer run-of-the-mill questions and provide basic information for a website’s users.

Last December, a study by Facebook revealed that some 2 billion messages are sent between people and businesses monthly. And a growing number of those messages include tête-à-têtes with chatbots.

The ubiquity of chatbots has a lot to do with the accessibility of the software. “Typically, technology is really expensive, but you can get a chatbot up and running with very little investment,” says Melissa ­Bennett, partner and technology director at Los Angeles–based creative and technology company Heat Waves.

But should you? In a 2018 survey of 3,000 consumers by analytics software firm Calabrio, 79 percent of respondents said interacting with a human—instead of a chatbot or digital self-service channel—is an important aspect of good customer service. However, 54 percent of those surveyed said they don’t think companies are wasting their money by investing in technology designed to improve customer experience.

If you’re thinking of introducing a chatbot on your website, keep these realities and recommendations in mind:

Not All Chatbots Are Smart

Chatbots vary in sophistication. Basic chatbots are preprogrammed to recognize specific questions and issues that shoppers type in, then respond with prescripted messages, while more sophisticated chatbots are powered by artificial intelligence (AI). The latter are doing so-called natural language processing. “They’re literally determining how to respond, and they can also learn,” Bennett says.

Chatbots Need Humans

Even if you have a chatbot responding to basic inquiries, you still need a system that alerts an actual human if a shopper becomes exasperated with the ’bot. As a retailer, you have to be reachable. Nearly three-quarters of respondents in the Calabrio study said they are “more loyal to a business that provides them with the option to speak to a human than those that only support customer service through digital or self-service channels.”

Chatbots Can Lower Overhead

Integrating a chatbot on your site means spending time and money; Bennett suggests working with a software engineer on this. But once operational, chatbots can be valuable tools for small-­business owners because they cut costs over time. “A chatbot can siphon off some of the overall customer-service work and route certain messages to you online,” Bennett says. “It’s something I recommend all my clients explore, whether their business is big or small.”


(Panuwat Phimpha/Shutterstock)

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