The proliferation of the chatbots by mmadigital's Rob Macfarlane

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by Stephen Chapman

Whether you log into your online banking, access your account on your phone network provider’s website or visit an online retailer, chances are you’ll be prompted to interact with a chatbot to help you with your enquiry, writes Rob Macfarlane, director of marketing performance at mmadigital.

These AI chatbots are becoming increasingly popular, so much so that by 2020 it’s predicted that the average person will have more conversation each day with a voice-controlled interface like Whatsapp or Facebook messenger than they will with their spouse.

Throughout my 15+ years in marketing, I’ve seen chatbots become more prevalent and today they’re becoming increasingly sophisticated and can process complex information to provide rapid and accurate responses. Whilst there’s still some way to go before we can trust AI in a wider variety of situations, the technology has huge potential. So how far away are we from the proliferation of the chatbot? And, as marketers, is it time for us to invest?

Where is the chatbot thriving?

Chatbots, especially at their current level of ability, are suited to some sectors more than others. Transactional industries, such as retail, hospitality and travel, can adopt AI very easily for customer service purposes and consumers are willing to interact with chatbots because they want issues resolving or questions answered as quickly as possible. In fact, the 2018 State of Chatbots report found that the most common predicted uses for chatbots that consumers reported included getting quick answers to questions in an emergency (37%), resolving a complaint or problem (35%), and getting detailed answers or explanations (35%).

Yet one sector where chatbots are proving difficult to use appropriately are when the service offering is more complex. Law firms’ websites are a good example of this. When it comes to legal services, clients want considered, quality information over speed of response. Accuracy is key and dealing with legal claims often involves detailed and multi-layered conversations, so the different scenarios and outcomes can vary greatly. At mmadigital, for example, we collect and qualify consumer personal injury and clinical negligence claims to pass on to law firms on a daily basis, and there is a degree of compassion and empathy required in certain situations that chatbots cannot provide as well as our team in the inbound enquiry centre.

However, there are some instances where chatbots have been adopted successfully in this space. For example, an app called Do Not Pay has been created to help users contest car parking tickets using an AI chatbot, which asks a series of questions to determine whether or not the ticket was fairly issued to advise the user whether or not to pursue their case.

Several progressive law firms have started to implement chatbots to take care of admin tasks; in the same way that chatbots have been used in medical practices to assign patients to appropriate specialists, chatbots are being used to direct clients to the right solicitors. Chatbots are also being used to provide initial legal information to anonymous website visitors to determine whether they need to be referred to a lawyer to progress their enquiry.

Customer service and beyond

Chatbots are already well suited to tackle a number of customer service roles, but as AI technology matures they’re being used for a number of other tasks and business operations. L’Oreal, for example, is now using the technology to sift through the large number of job applications they receive to make the recruitment process quicker and more efficient.

Another example is US florist, 1-800 Flowers, who has created a bot using Facebook messenger to process orders and payment for flowers and gifts. It can also recommend the best flowers for the occasion and send payment, shopping and delivery alerts to keep the customer informed about their order.

So, are you thinking about adopting the chatbot? First step is to determine whether it would be helpful or appropriate for your customer.

Chatbots vs humans

AI chatbots are instantly available and 100% accurate (as long as their coding is) – so do they have the edge?

Live chat (run by humans) is generally viewed favourably by consumers, but it depends on a high-quality service from those operating it. Research by Kayako found 38% of customers are more likely to buy from a business with live chat support, and 52% would be more likely to repurchase. Yet ‘poor canned responses’ and wait times were found to be sources of frustration.  Whilst chatbots are possibly a more cost-effective customer service option, similarly bad experiences can backfire on the company and drive the customer away. Research by Forbes found that 73% of customers who had bad experiences with chatbots say they never intend to contact the company again.

Striking the perfect balance between speed and quality is key, so my recommendation for any business looking to adopt the technology would be to bridge the gap and run chatbots and live chat together. Amazon is currently doing this very well; an AI chatbot provides an instant response with impressive accuracy using a conversational thread that even suggests typical responses for you. If there is a question it’s unable to answer or a scenario that requires human intervention, a real person will take over to provide more tailored and specialist attention. Until chatbots become more sophisticated, there’s always going to be the requirement for human input, but there are efficiencies to be had by having a chatbot pick up the conversation initially and escalating it to a human where it gets to complex.

The future of chatbots

The chatbot has already driven a huge shift in the way people communicate and interact with technology. Moving forward there’ll be less people directly visiting websites, downloading apps and making phone calls and emails. Searching your inbox and scrolling through websites to find the information you need is actually quite inefficient, so I expect that messaging will take over from the traditional ways of acquiring information online.

As the technology matures, AI chatbots have the potential to become the preferred method of communication. This may especially become the case in law, for example, where an individual with a legal or medical enquiry may be nervous to speak to a professional in the first instance. Whilst they may not be reaching their full potential at the moment, the proliferation of the chatbot is not far off.