Chatbots use artificial intelligence to simulate human conversation when interacting with a person. Companies can use chatbots to help provide customer support, answer questions or other basic tasks. This can free up employees to help customers with more complex questions or those that that require nuance and creativity.

However, not all chatbots are created equal. There is a fine line separating chatbots that provide good or bad customer experiences.

More Messaging, More Chatbots

The rise of chatbots coincides with the surge in growth of messaging applications. Both have become part of advertising, commerce and customer support ecosystems. Many companies have established a presence on social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all of which offer messaging functionality.

Messaging apps have surpassed social networks

In addition several companies have rolled out chat as a channel that customers can use to interact with them. The exploding popularity of messaging apps and chat creates an opportunity for businesses to interact with their customers in relevant, contextual and conversational ways. Companies need several thousand chat agents to handle this increase in volumes. Customers desire an interactive platform where they can engage and resolve issues. Companies can deploy chatbots to interact with customers using natural language to meet this need without requiring a person.

Automating and enriching customer interactions with chatbots

Chatbot technology has advanced a long way since Joseph Weizenbaum developed his natural language processing program ELIZA in the 1960s. Building these bots used to be complicated, resource-intensive projects. Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) allow developers to quickly build and deploy chatbots that present a reliable alternative to human support.

Chatbots have been successfully used across various industries:

  • Travel: Helps book trips and delivers their boarding passes
  • Healthcare: Assists with identifying illnesses and providing healthcare advice
  • Retail: Customizes shopping experiences
  • Banking: Provides financial and money management advice

Some can also function as a personal assistant. Siri, Cortana and Google Home can answer questions, set appointments and buy things online. As interacting with these bots becomes an everyday occurrence, customers have grown more accepting towards their use. One example is a Facebook Messenger chatbot introduced by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Customers can give the bot permission to automatically message them regarding their boarding pass, check-in confirmation and delay notifications. It can also respond to basic traveler questions. If the chatbot is unable to answer a question, it connects the passenger to a person. This bot integrates directly with the Facebook Messenger app, eliminating the requirement for users to download a separate app.

When chatbots ruin user experiences

Poorly designed chatbots can lead to detrimental, and sometimes absurd, customer experiences. Consider Poncho, a chatbot designed to provide weather updates over Facebook Messenger. While its creators intended Poncho to be “the first bot you want to be friends with,” early interactions with the bot were frustrating. Users found Poncho unable to answer even simple questions or required questions to be rephrased multiple times. The bot required users to construct questions in unnatural ways to understand.

Phrasing a question as “Precipitation San Francisco Tomorrow” rather than “Will it rain in San Francisco tomorrow?” didn’t create the personal touch Poncho’s designers hoped for.

The conversational hiccups of Facebook’s chatbot have been mostly ironed out at this point. However, they show that organizations must carefully consider their chatbot’s design to avoid creating negative customer experiences. Designing a chatbot should be part of the organization’s digital transformation roadmap. An effective, complex chatbot should be tied to a company’s digital capabilities. The customer journey map should be looked at in a holistic manner, focusing on key customer interactions that provide “moments of truth” to ascertain the right type of mechanism to communicate and engage with them. Further, as shown in the KLM example, the digital interface (chat) should be complemented with the right human touch to provide compelling and seamless engagement.

Initial experiences with chatbots could focus on piloting rule-based bots that answer simple customer queries. Companies with more advanced digital capabilities, and those provisioned to support decisions based on large volumes of data can create bots that adjust and improve their interactions by using machine learning to learn from the data.

Best Practices for building chatbots

Automation is increasingly a part of everyday life, from self-checkout lines in grocery stores to touchscreen kiosks in restaurants. It’s effective when it makes the experience seamless to the customer.

Designing a good chatbot may seem daunting, but a few best practices can simplify the process:

Never overextend a chatbot

Whatever function a chatbot is designed to perform, it should perform well. A Chatbot that does a dozen things poorly will be less useful to customers than one that does three things perfectly.

Make it snappy

Don’t keep customers waiting for answers. A good rule of thumb for chatbots is that they should provide a customer with information they’re looking for within 2-3 questions.

Add emotions with avatars

Users don’t prefer interacting with a faceless chatbot. Consider adding an avatar to a chatbot to produce a more human look and feel, which in turn can drive a more empathetic response from its users. A chatbot’s answers should also be written in a conversational manner.

Provide customers ample options

Not everyone will want to speak with a chatbot. Forcing customers to interact with a machine when they wish to speak with a human is a recipe for frustration. Provide customers with options that allow them to connect with a human agent immediately.

Making chatbots work

Chatbots are becoming better, faster and cheaper. More companies than ever can provide cost-effective customer service, rapid response times and simplified business transactions using these bots.

However, these benefits will only be achieved if a company has the digital strategy and plan to integrate the bot into their existing operations. These bots require automation to rapidly pull information requested by customers and machine learning to cut down on the amount of exceptions requiring human intervention.

By approaching chatbots as part of an overall digital transformation agenda, businesses will be well positioned to provide enhanced customer experiences

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