As a business, when was your chatbot last updated, or when did you last consider adopting a bot? As a user, how many sites have you come across with a bot that felt like it was developed years ago and hasn’t been improved since? The conversational technology behind bots has come a long way in a few short years, so all businesses need to mind the chatbot gap.
As with any technology, there was a lot of hype behind chatbots. Consequently, many businesses were disappointed when their first bots did little more than recite the company FAQ, tell people about opening hours, or spoon-feed a marketing script about the latest products.
For many companies or their tech teams, the bot was launched and they moved on to the next task. For many customers, they tried the bot once and saw no reason to use it again. Potentially millions of those bots are still out there, all sucking away at business and customer enthusiasm for better bots.
Which is where the chatbot gap comes into play. Unless business leaders or IT types with foresight and clout have been paying attention, the world of bots might have moved on without them.
The gap between chatbots then and now
Early generation bots were largely scripted, which in itself is no bad thing and ideal for many current use cases. However, there were few people building bots for business that were trying to push them beyond the usual FAQ and customer support roles.
Over that time, bots have become smarter, they are better able to understand what people ask, creating more meaningful conversations. They are able to accept bookings, to search for more information on a subject, adding depth, and can complete who complex processes like taking out insurance, booking a flight or ordering fast food.
Behind the chatbots, there are new levels of intelligence, such as natural language processing (NLP), deep learning and translation skills. They can also access wider pools of business- or market-specific information to broaden a conversation.
Best of all, modern bots can remember a customer and previous chats, helping to build a single conversation along the life of the customer, from the social “did you like your last order?” to practical queries “it might be time to order new batteries” or “have you booked a service yet?”
Bots have also moved on from text to offering discussions by emoji, which can be appropriate where language or emotion can be a problem. They appear on smart devices and phones through Alexa or Siri to operate where typing isn’t practical or desirable.
The second coming of chatbots
But all of those advances are for nothing if companies don’t update (or close down) their old bots, or understand the benefits on offer. That original bot may have had a few dozen chats or interactions a week, but if there was no clear value for users, those would soon have tailed off.
Companies that regularly update their bots, make them highly visible and clearly state what the benefits are, are more likely to have seen their usage numbers grow. The company will have seen the value in time saved, customer interest or sales, and other benefits, while more engaged customers are more likely to stay with a company.
Even for major companies with high volumes of customers, a good bot can minimise the time spent with each customer, and bots can triage complaints or issues so they get sorted by the right person faster, rather than being in a generic hold queue.
Any company that has seen the evolution of bots will be aware of this and taking appropriate action, but there are many who are just too busy running the show or lacking the tech knowledge to notice or care.
2020: The year of the bot
For all its horribleness, COVID did wonders for the visibility of chatbots. 2020 saw global powers, huge organisations and local businesses need to communicate on a scale and urgency never seen before.
Chatbots came to the fore, providing the latest advice, debunking myths, helping stranded passengers, updating business opening times that were changing constantly, and helping companies through a violently changing operating landscape.
Bots were delivered in hours or days, not weeks and months, they handled millions of queries, and allowed even small firms to highlight their online opportunities. Whether it was delivering local produce or highlighting their sources of anti-bacterial gels or face masks that helped protect people during the early days when traditional supplies had vanished.
The visibility of these bots has helped many businesses, even those that had long forgotten about their early efforts, realise the value on offer, and chatbot updates and adoption will be on the increase as businesses return to normal, with plenty of fresh innovation in bots to come.
From payment handling and secure transactions, to business bots that interact with the workforce, bots will do more for us. And as they getting better at self-learning to understand a wider range of customer queries, there is plenty more to come. So much so, that the name chatbot has probably outlived its usefulness, and we are moving into a world of “conversational automation” or “virtual avatars” where screen-based characters will make conversations more interesting and engaging while helping to build brands or provide a constant point of contact.
Think of those fast-food ordering screens, but with a more dynamic character to take orders or a modest virtual concierge in a hotel welcoming late check-ins and offering room service on the big screen or a customer’s phone. There are plenty of opportunities to think big as the chatbot outgrows its original specification.
And, perhaps most importantly, any business can build a bot using codeless design to have a powerful piece of technology up and running in short order, to deal with immediate customer needs or as the basis of a long-term strategy to grow the understanding and use of AI within an organisation.
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.