Chatbots and Virtual Assistants: Why You Would Need One Or The Other?

Chatbots and Virtual Assistants: Why You Would Need One Or The Other?

How can you tell if your company should go with a chatbot or virtual assistant? What are the differences? Will your customers know or care? In the increasingly mixed-up world of digital help, here’s how to figure out what’s best on the road to the ultimate digital concierge.

From the first chatbots in the mid-90s to the arrival of Apple’s Siri in 2011, the world has been primed for a big step into the future as something from fiction became real. We could talk to machines, and (sometimes) they would answer back.

Since those heady days and into the 2020s, it has been more of a slow crawl toward that future. Siri’s compatriots like AI-genius IBM Watson (2010), Amazon Alexa (2014), chatbots like SnatchBot (2015) and Samsung Bixby (2017), plus a host of bot and VA services have changed how we interact with our technology in small but significant ways.

Today, the commercial, business and consumer landscapes are littered with bots and endless ways to communicate, creating a confusing painful lexicon of terms, services and interaction points, and giving rise to new questions that the bots can’t answer.

Bot vs VA: What’s the difference?

Look back to Apple launching Siri (YouTube) with the iPhone 4S. Their ambition was clear. To let people talk to her in any way they liked as an “intelligent assistant.” In the near-decade since, Siri has added a host of tricks, works with a bunch of other apps and smart home gadgets, moving from the phone to Mac, Apple speakers and TV devices, and into cars.

But, she still misses out on details. If I ask for a “sourdough pizza near me” all I get is a generic list of local restaurants. Some people use Siri each and every day, to others these virtual assistants another forgotten feature on their phone, smart TV or gadget. How many discarded Amazon Echo or Google Homes lie in drawers, next to smart energy meter readers, smart light bulb controllers and so on?

For the regular VA users who know the features, people can add items to their shopping lists, compare family or business calendars, unlock doors. But people have to know these uses exist, which is hard for a screenless box sitting by the TV, and even smartphone apps are only likely to show the most common use cases.

The chatbot perspective

Chatbots came to life looking at the other end of the conversational spectrum. Most businesses and their customers had a specific set of questions that needed answering. The chatbot provided a way for people to find out information, quickly and easily without having to call customer support, waiting for someone to pick up the office phone, or to wait as number 30-something in a call queue because “your custom is important to us.”

Chatbots have accelerated fast up the smartness curve to understand us better and deliver more information. But a first-generation bot that was well built can still provide enough business and customer value, as long as the information it provides remains relevant. Bots have learnt to translate conversations to cater to a global audience, and their key 24/7 availability remains one of their most practical benefits.

But, at their core, they remain two different features with distinctive use cases. At a business level, what are the key differences?

  • Most chatbots follow a single flow of conversation, which when broken often leads to a hard stop, or reverts to the beginning.
  • Virtual assistants allow users to fire random questions with varying fidelity in the response, chatbots should be experts in their domain, but know little else.
  • Chatbot language is usually strictly defined, with smarter bots able to use NLP and other AI techniques to extract meaning from user input.
  • VAs should be able to understand the basic meaning of anything put to them and are fast-learners at dialects and colloquialisms.
  • Brands and companies have total control over their chatbot output and updates in real time. Updating virtual assistant capabilities may require updating skills, apps or features that lead to a delay.
  • Chatbots tend to be gender-neutral or one sex, while VA users can pick a voice as they see fit.

Over the years, the two technologies have crept closer toward a common middle ground, with a growing number of chatbots that can handle voice, using text-to-speech and speech-to-text language understanding to manage the switch.

This common ground between chatbots and VAs appears in the following areas (with many more arriving):

  • Checking specific details like event times, balances, appointments and hotel bookings or flight schedules. All the data resides on a server and is a quick API pull away for any user.
  • Making orders, from pizzas to booking a car MOT or taxi rides to salon appointments, bots and VAs are equally adept at filling in the digital form on a server or app from a users’ input.
  • Chatbots are getting smarter and can access broader pools of knowledge to answer requests, while VAs can be used to host chatbots, making them seem more useful even if they are really just bolting on another service/feature, however – in general terms, both continue to develop a growing level of smartness.

As well as consumer or customer-facing tasks, businesses see increased use of chatbots for internal purposes (HR, ordering, etc) with VAs adopted for administration and scheduling purposes. Many executives are happy to compose letters or memos using their computer’s virtual assistant technology, while bots are used in hiring, knowledge sharing, m2m conversations and more.

Soon, every company will have a bot, workers will commonly talk to VAs. Led by these tools, businesses will look at more aggressive use of AI, with it becoming a common service, just like cloud office, email and web tools, for every type of organisation within a few years.

They will be augmented by smarter robotic process automation (RPA) tools as automation, autonomy and AI become integral to manufacturing, supply chain or analytics. Successful adoption will help businesses make smarter decisions faster, allowing them to operate more flexibly and efficiently, leaving those failing to adapt to this new landscape falling rapidly by the wayside.

The growth in chatbot and VA intelligence

While many businesses are still cautiously welcoming AI into their offices and digital services, the vendors are happy to evolve their products with a constant stream of ever-smarter features. For chatbot vendors, this means greater integration with other services and wider use of AI. Many are also moving to no-code platforms, allowing anyone to build a bot, increasing their availability and accessibility.

For virtual assistants, a constant wave of features increases their utility, with regular updates. Alexa recently updated its neural text-to-speech technology to help developers craft more natural conversations. Consumer features like “send a hug” are popular, but each new extra requires the user to be aware of them, from posts like Amazon’s Alexa blog.

Recently, Alexa also landed in more new-generation cars to rival Apple’s CarPlay and make the VAs more portable, filling in the gaps where people are separated from their digital assistants. As they get more useful across the whole day, people should become happier to rely on them more.

The Covid crisis created a huge demand for bots, with thousands of new chatbots created to provide the global public with information and facts. This helped show the key differences between bots and VAs. Bots were the first responders to the crisis, while virtual assistants played more of a personal support part, helping keep families together and screen-based smart devices providing video chats and remote lessons.

The push from the giants like Facebook and Google for artificial general intelligence (AGI) is largely a sideshow when it comes to the majority of business use. Yet, AGI will have a huge impact on business decision making in the coming years, so business leaders need to keep an eye on developments.

Chatbots or virtual assistants: You choose!

Recent world events have acted as a major booster for chatbots, helping boost their profile among businesses and other organisations. In the return to work post-Covid and with upcoming elections, chatbots’ profile will continue to rise, but the key use cases are now clearly defined.

For virtual assistants, the “killer app” of the 2020s is yet to emerge, but as the technology becomes more pervasive, it will become a greater part of everyone’s lives, creating business or commerce engagement opportunities, as we wait for that one event that sends awareness into the stratosphere.

Any business can add a chatbot to its web site, social media or app in a few days or a week. This entry-level approach gives companies of all sizes the chance to sample and gain an understanding of AI and autonomous engagement with customers.

From those small first bots, many companies have saved sizeable amounts of time dealing with customer issues. This has allowed them to focus that time on high-value customers or those in real need of the personal touch, and as bots expand revenue saving or sales generation has taken off. And where bots led, virtual assistant tools that parallel or evolve from these efforts are increasingly common. Follow that route and most businesses should be well-positioned to steer the increasingly confusing digital concierge waters to come.

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Chris Knight

Chris Knight writes about where technology will take us next, from the power of neural networks, artificial intelligence and chatbots, to the endless worlds promised by augmented and virtual reality. From the latest in gadgets and hardware to how digital businesses can use technology to grow, Chris makes the future clear and understandable to all.
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