Getting Chatty With Chatbots

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Always On

Because they can be everpresent, chatbots are vital for keeping customers and potential customers engaged with a brand.

"Chatbots are an impressive solution for brands to communicate with customers, as they can work quickly and keep customers engaged," said Dougherty. "They can offer non-stop, 24/7 customer support to answer simple questions or problems."

One key to the effectiveness of chatbots is the fact that they can respond so quickly to customer queries. Customers appreciate that speed and responsiveness.

"Quick customer response is important to a brand's reputation and customer loyalty, so providing customers with fast solutions to simple problems through chatbots, as well as the option to chat with a real customer service representative for more complex problems, allows companies to fully cover their bases," said Dougherty.

Potential customers in particular are likely to respond well to chatbots, because they can provide them with information they need almost immediately.

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"Chatbots are also effective for reaching potential customers as they can act as a sounding board for questions that may lead up to clicking to buy a product," explained Dougherty. "For example, if a customer is trying to decide between two products, a chatbot may be able to provide them with the information needed to make the final purchasing decision."

What Makes a Good Chatbot

The chatbots that work best are those that are essentially human-like, and for that reason companies should hold their chatbots to the standards that apply to their human employees.

"Retailers should have the same expectations of a customer's interaction with a chatbot as they do with their customer service representatives or sales associates," said Jeffrey Neville, senior vice president and practice lead at BRP Consulting.

"Chatbots should be human-like in their interactions and have a personality that matches the brand," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Chatbots also need to be able to remember past interactions with a particular customer and provide customized, relevant service.

"Like a good sales associate, they should remember past conversations, be tolerant of consumer's typos and ambiguity, and be prepared to provide backup information for any question that can't be answered completely," explained Neville. "For example, 'I'm sorry, but this part is not covered under your warranty -- here is a link to our warranty policy.'"

Gathering feedback from customers is one good way to improve the functioning of chatbots.

"In order to ensure that the chatbot experience is consistent and positive for users, organizations need to gather customer feedback on these solutions and iterate on the tool over time so it can effectively respond to evolving expectations," said Agustin Huerta, VP of technology at Globant.

"This ensures that customers' needs are continually met, and they're satisfied with the experience they're getting when working with the bot," he told the E-Commerce Times.

As close as chatbots might be to humans, however, companies need to keep transparency in mind.

"Retailers should be up front about the fact that the consumer is talking to or texting with a bot and set expectations about what types of tasks or questions the bot can or can't perform or answer," said Neville. "There should always be an option to talk to a real human or provide links to alternate contact methods."

It's also important to be flexible. In some cases, a person really is preferable to a chatbot.

"Chatbots can't respond to every human request, given many are not based on generative models and are trained to provide predefined answers," said Huerta. "In industries like healthcare, education and insurance, cases arise where customers need the guidance and empathy of a human rep."

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It is also important to provide a seamless transition from a chatbot to an actual person, when needed.

"For a great customer experience, it is crucial to not try and trick consumers into thinking the chatbot is a real person," said Chris Bauserman, vice president of segment and product marketing at NICE inContact.

"Make it clear when they have switched from a bot to a person, or vice versa, and also ... make that transition seamless while providing the live agent full customer context," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Ultimately, the best chatbots are those that produce the most positive outcomes from their interactions with customers.

"A good chatbot experience is one that drives a customer toward a fulfilling response," said Dougherty.

"If they're looking to solve a customer service issue, the chatbot would either be able to direct them to a resolution or direct them to a live agent who can help answer their question or solve their problem," he continued.

Chatbots provide straightforward and human-like interactions that deliver real value to the customer," Dougherty pointed out, "and keep them content and loyal to the brand, despite any product or service issues."

The Future of Chatbots

As technology improves and natural language and artificial intelligence capabilities increase, chatbots are likely to become more indistinguishable from humans.

"The chatbot landscape is quickly evolving," observed Zz Twainy, COO/CMO of Instabot.

"Currently, a majority are based on decision-tree logic, but as natural language processing and machine learning solutions become more sophisticated and democratized, chatbots will be more powerful -- able to answer an unlimited amount of questions, do more sophisticated tasks, and completely disrupt and change the user experience," she told the E-Commerce Times.

There will continue to be increasing interactions between humans and bots, particularly on the back end, as human employees refine their chatbot counterparts to be more human-like.

"We've discovered that the best people to 'train' a chatbot are the customer service agents on the front lines," said Mariam Reza, VP of global enterprise solutions at LivePerson.

"Today, there are agents building bots to help them handle mundane, repetitive inquiries -- think order status -- so they can handle more complicated inquiries that require expertise," she told the E-Commerce Times. "This is just the beginning of the human/bot relationship, and we will see bots expertly customized for handling specific tasks and inquiries."

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Employees are on the front lines, after all, and they understand exactly what chatbots need to do.

"Critical to success with AI in the contact center is integrating feedback from employees interacting with chatbots and virtual assistants," said NICE inContact's Bauserman.

"AI is often a top-down initiative, and executives might be the ones pushing a chatbot initiative, but the people on the front lines are the ones with the insight," he added. "The payoff is bottom up, so listening to employee insights and integrating the feedback from employees is important to continue evolving and improving chatbot experiences."

As chatbots become ubiquitous, they'll eventually come to play an increasingly vital role in the daily operations of companies, as well as in the daily lives of consumers.

"Marketers will continue to come up with creative ways to leverage chatbots to engage customers and build brand buzz," said BRP Consulting's Neville. "Casper Mattresses created the Insomnobot 3000, a chatbot consumers can text when they can't sleep. Insomnobot's purpose is to increase consumer interaction with the brand on a personal level, almost like a mascot, and gives the company a more 'human' face and personality," he noted. "This deeper level of interaction, even if it contains no direct transmission of marketing material, keeps Casper in the forefront of consumers' minds," said Neville, "in a way that satisfies the current consumer trend of the desire for deeper connection with the brands they shop." Vivian Wagner has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. Her main areas of focus are technology, business, CRM, e-commerce, privacy, security, arts, culture and diversity. She has extensive experience reporting on business and technology for a variety of outlets, including The Atlantic, The Establishment and O, The Oprah Magazine. She holds a PhD in English with a specialty in modern American literature and culture. She received a first-place feature reporting award from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists.

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