The chatbots are here and the digital evolution replacing human to human interaction will soon make another big leap forward. Not quite yet, but soon.

At this point, we’re used to having access to, say, a dedicated Twitter account for customer service. Or, feel comfortable with coming forward with an issue or support request on Facebook. Other similar interactions with companies and brands are also common, and in all cases, users are still dealing with other people. The purpose of chatbots is to replace humans in brand interactions, and once they’re perfected, there will be big and positive changes (or so we hope).

 

What is a chatbot anyway?

Chatbots are essentially a mini interface within a messaging app. The idea is that the user is able to interact with a chatbot just like any other contact, within the boundaries of their purpose. They simulate a human-like conversation, to save time and resources of actual staff on customer service.

We’ve been slowly programmed over the last five years to use our digital assistants increasingly more. Siri, Google (or Google Now, whichever they’re calling it this month), Cortana, and so on. We pick up our phones, ask a question, and our digital assistants tell us the answer – when they actually work, that is.

This technology was clunky at first, but today, it works pretty well in most instances. The more they’re developed, and the better AI technology gets, the more we’ll use them. It’s like having a friend that knows just about everything, next to us all of the time. “Hey John, do you know the weather for tomorrow?” “Do you know of a good pizza place close by?” We can already get answers to these questions from our phones via these digital assistants.

The problem with Siri and other assistants (so far) is twofold. First, their search is broad, which is where the difficulty in getting them to work in every instance comes from. There are just too many varieties for inquiries and requests, and the technology isn’t quite there yet. Second, they only retrieve information. That is, they don’t “think”. When you ask for information, you get information. Data in, data out.

Chatbots, by contrast, are more specific and have a narrow focus. This makes far more suitable for the role of a digital assistant or a dedicated app. It makes them much easier to implement too.

 

Customer benefits of chatbots

Since April 2014, Facebook Messenger has grown from 200 million monthly users to a whopping 900 million. WhatsApp, Snapchat, Kik, the list goes on – messaging is huge. Luka is a messaging app that has been designed to also include chatbots, a clear competitor of Messenger. And with over 1.5 billion people projected to be using messaging apps by the end of the year, the timing for the rise of chatbots couldn’t be more perfect.

For consumers, this will be great once the bugs are dealt with. Ask a question anytime through messaging, say, about the delivery of your order and you’ll get the answer. No customer service rep necessary and no being redirected to an app or website for further information. Just ask, and get the answer you were looking for in seconds.

 

How to win and lose with chatbots

We’re not there yet though. Remember Tay, Microsoft’s AI chatbot? She was shut down on Twitter within days after being influenced by users to start spouting racist and inflammatory comments. The lesson for brands is simple – filters. Learning to mimic human behaviors isn’t always a good thing, unfortunately not all humans are good. An AI program that learns from humans will pick up both the bad and the good without the precautions, and Tay became the parable for this truth.

But chatbots are already getting much better, and the better they get, the more they take off. Not all AI experiments have gone as poorly as Tay, but businesses should be cautious. Until AI is better developed, chatbots should only be used to answer questions within defined boundaries.

After all, great products should be easy to use, perform well 99% of the time, and also, reduce friction or solve a problem.

 

Brand benefits

Fast food chains in the US and Canada have already announced that they’ll be replacing cashiers and order takers with kiosks or screens in the next few years. Taco Bell and Burger King are already developing chatbots to take this a step further. Pick up your mobile device, open your messaging app, and order your food. It’ll be ready when you get there. Once payments are integrated with the bots and apps, you won’t even have to go through the tedious process of paying when you pick it up.

Some other examples of chatbots that are already being used are:

Chatbots are an exciting development in marketing, customer service, and business in general. For businesses, it means less overhead, less employees, less payroll, less everything cost related. And no need to worry if an employee overslept or called in sick. Plus, 24/7 service is a given. Call centers will require less staff with the exception of one or two individuals who handle the rare occasions when a bot is unable to perform. Imagine the entire customer service department of a huge global brand being run by less than 10 people. That’s a dream for their bottom line.

For marketers, chatbots will take on a slightly different function. They will be able to suggest products and services within conversations and move consumers to a buying decision more quickly. It’s possible that suggestive selling and upselling will eventually become one of the primary purposes of the bots. After all, what business wouldn’t want an expert sales team that never sleeps or takes lunch breaks?

The main benefit of it all is that marketing and customer service teams will have more time to focus on creativity, planning, and strategy. All while their chatbots take care of the day-to-day tasks and admin that currently tie up so much time and resources.

Gavin Hammar

Tech entrepreneur, software developer and founder of Sendible.com.

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