Chatbots: A New Customer Service Channel

In bricks and mortar retail we have the concept of footfall, which is the number of people entering a shop or shopping area over a given time frame. Businesses pay higher rents for higher footfall locations. In order for organizations to engage with customers they have to locate themselves where customers are likely to hang out. This was the main reason why businesses across all industries rushed to build business apps. If customers are using apps we must build an app. As I discussed in my previous post, for a variety of reasons mobile business apps have failed big time. Customers aren’t downloading business apps. If mobile apps are part of your customer engagement mix they aren’t getting any footfall.

In addition customer service via mobile apps is for the most part pitiful. Most of today’s business apps are deigned to sell not serve. Many business apps throw the user out of the native app into a browser if you want to reach customer service. As for self-service, case management and notifications via a mobile app, forget about it. No wonder few people download business apps.

The emergence of chatbots however provides an opportunity for organizations to engage with customers that overcome many of the limitations of the business app. A chatbot is a type of conversational agent, a computer program designed to simulate an intelligent conversation with one or more human users via auditory or textual methods. Chatbots are integrated within the apps that customers actually want to use. They are integrated within messaging apps such as WeChat, Kik and Messenger which act as the operating systems for the chatbots. Chatbots thus solve the business app problem, enabling customers to engage with a business without downloading an app or going to a website.

Perhaps most importantly, chatbots also reflect the robot 5emergence of artificial intelligence or speech recognition as a customer service user interface.  Artificial intelligence is slowly creeping into our everyday lives. Today, four of the largest global IT organizations – Apple (Siri), Google (Google Now), Amazon (Alexa) and Microsoft (Cortana) — offer speech recognition software. Customers will be able to interact with the chatbot using either text or voice recognition software. Long term, voice recognition software will become the dominant UI for customer engagement and well as for interaction with the Internet of Things (IoT).

Chatbots represent a new customer engagement channel that will soon co-exist with today’s other multichannel options of voice, chat, email, social and self-service. Chatbots will initially act as a self-service interface with simple escalation options. Eventually chatbots could replace 1-800 numbers and Facebook (for Messenger) is currently providing developers with API tools to build chatbots and Live Chat web plug-ins for business clients.

In April 2016 Facebook announced, at its annual F8 Developer conference, that its Messenger app was to become a platform that allows businesses to communicate with users via chatbots.  Customer service is firmly in Facebook’s sights with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stating “We think you should be able to text message a business like you would send to a friend and get a quick response,” The chatbot strategy has also been endorsed by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who stated, “bots are the new apps.”

Mobile customer service is terrible. Customers aren’t downloading business apps. Chatbots provide a new opportunity to address both of these issues.

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