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Hand in Robot Hand: How Chatbots and Humans Are Improving Customer Service Together

by Cristina Constandache

12 August 2020 11:30am

Rise of the machines? Hardly. Rather than replacing customer service agents, chatbots can free them up to take on the more challenging queries.

Chatbots have been around in various forms for about 10 years now. For the uninitiated, a chatbot a piece of software that is able to hold conversations with a human usually in order to answer their questions. Their usage has evolved over time. And they’re on the rise right now, with the market set to grow 30 percent to reach $15 billion by 2025.

At the moment, they’re mainly used for utilitarian purposes, of which customer support is the most important. But a wide range of services seem to be employing chatbots to facilitate the user experience, and to lower the cost of providing around-the-clock customer support.

Banks have been particularly successful in adopting chatbots lately, but here at Viber, we’ve also seen big uptake from delivery services. Travel services have been lagging somewhat, and with the current situation in the travel industry, they may fall even further behind.

What makes a bad chatbot

Brands shouldn’t use a chatbot simply because it’s the latest thing. They should think long and hard about what they want it to achieve. It’s better to not have a chatbot at all than one that is poor quality.

The authenticity of the customer experience is key – customers should feel like they are dealing with a company that values them. At the same time, it’s pointless trying to pass off a chatbot as a human agent – they don’t have anywhere near the same abilities or skills, and it will just sow distrust among customers. It’s important to clarify from the off that the customer is dealing with a piece of software. That will avoid a lot of misunderstandings.

It will also help to manage customer expectations. Frustration can be common when dealing with chatbots – either it asks you the same question over and over, or it can’t understand your answers. But the biggest faux pas is a chatbot that just doesn’t work or won’t let you connect. Some don’t work out of office hours as well, which can be especially infuriating. The whole point of a chatbot is they don’t keep set hours – if you have one, your business is effectively open 24/7. That’s one of their greatest assets. But for some reason, not all businesses see it that way.

These mistakes are all too common. And they all chip away at the customer experience.

Don’t overlook the human touch

The whole purpose of chatbots is to work with humans and to ease the customer experience (of course, they can also lower costs for a business). A chatbot can’t cover every possible scenario. Its big weakness is empathy – no matter how advanced it is, a piece of software can never fully appreciate a customer’s experience, be it good or bad. This is when the chatbot should transfer the query to a human agent.

In an ideal scenario, a chatbot would handle the bulk of the routine queries, and only involve a human agent when the question is too complex – or the customer too heated – to be handled by a bot. Human agents are better placed to help with the more nuanced situations customers might find themselves in, and to offer their soft skills like empathy or analytical thinking as required.

Think of it as the 80/20 rule: chatbots take on the 80 percent of queries that are routine, with humans handling the more demanding 20 percent.

Of course chatbots have their own risks too. According to a recent study by Brunel Business School, if used incorrectly, they can actually risk turning off customers. Just ask Microsoft. In 2016, it released an AI chatbot called Tay, which was described as an experiment in “conversational understanding”. But trolls being trolls, they soon bombarded it with racist, misogynistic abuse, which – due to its algorithm – it duly started repeating. Not a good look.

Just like stopping fraud, preventing the abuse of a piece of software is a never ending struggle – people will always come up with new and creative ways to sabotage it. Businesses shouldn’t solely rely on chatbots and think they can replace real agents. It’s a very enticing proposition, because bots’ running costs are significantly lower. But if a business goes all in on chatbots, it will probably offer the worst possible experience to the user. Completely disregarding the human touch is one of the biggest dangers that businesses should look out for.

Messaging apps like Viber are the natural home of the chatbot. Despite advancing bot technology, the desktop or mobile experience has not been as good as it should be and hasn’t matched the users’ requirements. If businesses are looking to use bots, they should be very mindful of the user experience. A business app, or a mobile web page, or even a desktop page isn’t the right environment for a bot. By definition, chatbots are meant to be conducting conversation, so they should be having these conversations in an app that is purpose built for chatting. Only an app like Viber can offer this kind of tailor-made environment.

More bots for the better

COVID-19 has accelerated chatbots’ usage, but it was a bit of a Wild West out there already. Companies that weren’t big on digital were forced to improvise. While it’s good that they tried to offer customers support, the experience was a little basic. Their bots were done in a rush just to offer some sort of support. There were lots of bots, but it was a case of quantity over quality. Now that things are calming down a bit, these businesses should take a close look at the bots they are using and try to improve the user experience.

Clearly bots are here to stay, and social distancing restrictions will be in place for the foreseeable future, but even without the pandemic, bots have shown their utility. Now it’s time to invest in quality bots rather than just having one for the sake of it. The appetite is clearly there. A lot of companies are under pressure with regards to revenues, and if they can’t take on additional agents, bots can definitely help if utilised correctly.

Going forward, some industries will get ahead of others in terms of bot usage – here, bots will become the entry point for customer support. This is most likely for banking, education and government services (which should hopefully cut red tape). Hopefully there will be more investment into the quality and sophistication of the software rather than just covering basic usage. This should free up the time and resources for companies to invest in improving the quality of their human agents, which will lead to a better customer experience overall. That’s good news for customers’ blood pressures everywhere.


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