Using Bots to Bring Holiday Joy

In a world gone mad with launching chatbots for ordering pizza and spinning up cocktail recipes, businesses must realize that a chatbot alone is not a panacea for customer service. In fact, many chatbots are a flop when it comes to addressing complex customer questions. But businesses are not getting the message. In February, Facebook Messenger boasted zero bots, but by November, there were more than 34,000.

That said, chatbots speak to a trend in customer service that cannot be ignored: People want access to self-service support tools wherever and whenever they want assistance. These tools offer an opportunity for businesses that need help scaling their customer support teams and offloading some more straightforward questions from their contact center queues. A survey conducted by Aspect Software Research found that 44 percent of U.S. consumers ages 18-65 would prefer a chatbot if the company could get the experience right. And that's the key: the experience.

For businesses exploring how chatbots can support their customer service goals, and even those that have already deployed bots, here are five things that customer support leaders should keep in mind as they look to chatbots this holiday season:

  1. Answer well: Chatbots should start in an assistant role so they can be trained on customer data with the assistance of an agent. By suggesting likely responses to an agent for review, the agent can more efficiently deliver responses to common questions and add a layer of personalization to improve the interaction.
  2. Answer fast: Messaging channels allow convenience in that they don't tie up a customer and an agent in a phone call, but customers want and value response times in seconds, not minutes, hours, or, dare we say, days.
  3. Escalate if needed: The fastest way to make a customer support problem worse is by delivering bad information. The AI that drives the chatbot must use customer sentiment and logic to know when to pass inquiries that cannot be handled by the bot along to humans BEFORE the customer gets frustrated.
  4. 24/7/365 coverage: A skeleton crew on the customer support team can be bolstered by a chatbot that helps to offload and engage customers while they wait (even at 4 a.m.).
  5. Don't let it look like a bot: When a customer reaches out for support, the last thing that's helpful is an interaction with what's clearly a dumb bot. Human agents and chatbots alike should factor in personalized and honest responses that are conversational, but helpful.

Industry analyst firm TMR estimated the market size for chatbots to be almost $1 billion by 2024. Given the explosion in interest in the technology and the sea change in customer service expectations being driven by millennials, this isn't a bad estimate. But to truly engage customers and deliver quality service, the key is not just adding a chatbot to the mix, but finding the medium that allows you to deliver the fastest, highest-quality responses in real time.

Barry Coleman is chief technology officer at (formerly called UserCare), a provider of artificial intelligence-enhanced customer service solutions. Prior to, Coleman served as chief technology officer and vice president of support and customer optimization products at ATG, which was acquired by Oracle for $1 billion. Coleman is the author on several patents and applications in the areas of online customer support, including cross-channel data passing, dynamic customer invitation, and customer privacy.

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According to findings from the 2016 Consumer Experience Index survey by Aspect, 44 percent of shoppers prefer to use chatbots rather than speak to a live agent, assuming that the automated assistant is capable of handling the request. Forty percent of those surveyed also said that assuming the quality of the experience and privacy are preserved, they would like to use services such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Snapchat to communicate with companies; this is up from 33 percent last year.

Posted December 16, 2016