Why Bots Should Matter To Customer Experience Professionals
Bots may already be old news for you if you are an investor or tech professional in Silicon Valley, where from what I hear they have already been a hot topic for at least the last year. The numbers bear this out: according to CB Insights, artificial intelligence start-ups (of which bots are a portion) raised about $1.6 billion in funding in the first half of 2016.
If those involved in building and investing in bots are correct, that $1.6 billion will be peanuts compared to the changes that will come. For those of us not in that rarefied world of cutting edge tech and investors looking for the next thing they can preface with the word “disruptive,” bots are (IMHO anyway, being in the relative tech backwater of Boston) only just starting to enter the conversation around how organizations employ technology solutions for improving customer experience management (CEM). CEM professionals therefore need to keep abreast of developments in the bots landscape, since this technology provides new ways that companies can identify, sell to, and service their customers.
The very term “bot” is one of those tech-world terms that actually does a bit of a disservice to the innovation it makes possible, since it comes with negative connotations about humans losing jobs to robots. One useful definition appears in a Venturebeat article by Amir Shevat, developer relations lead at Slack: “Bots are digital users within a messaging product. Unlike most users, they are powered by software rather than by a human , and they bring a product or service into a given messaging product via the conversational interface.” Also in Venturebeat is an infographic showing the bots landscape and the different types of companies that currently make up this market (note you need to give them info to download your version).
In other words, a bot is a software application that automates tasks you would normally do on your own through a conversation, acting as a kind of a virtual personal assistant. It is not meant to replace people per se, but rather to automate certain repetitive tasks that people perform as part of engaging with customers, so that people can concentrate more on the higher level tasks best performed by humans.
Bots have actually been in use for several years now. Apple’s Siri is a voice-enabled bot, as is Amazon’s Echo. The more recent bots, the ones Shevat describes, tend to be text-driven and built on messaging platforms. Facebook’s recent move in April 2016, where the company opened its Messenger platform to third party developers to build chatbots was one impetus spurring growth in the bots market: Messenger has about 900 million users worldwide. Kik, a messaging service popular with teens, with around 300 million users, also opened its platform to developers around the same time.
A few use cases
One example of a bot task: collecting your basic personal details when you phone customer service, so that you don’t need to then recite those details once your call reaches a live person. Think of all the times and hours of your life you’ve spent repeating your name, address, and account number to a call center employee. A bot can collect that information for the employee in advance, so they can then spend their time when they are speaking with youtroubleshooting your problem rather than doing data entry.
Slack sees enough potential in bots that it has created a fund devoted to investing in bots start-ups. The company hosts a bots directory, where employees can access tools as diverse as statistics collection to productivity boosting to games:
Other tasks that bots are doing include:
- booking appointments and travel
- expense management (Sage has built a bot for this for Slack and Facebook)
- task management
- shopping (a start-up called Assist has built a bot for 1-8o0-Flowers.com)
As with apps before them, bots are sprouting up everywhere. So should you start an initiative at your company to build and deploy bots in order to keep pace with the times? Not so fast: there is customer experience to consider.
The link to CEM
Slack’s Shevat cautions that “done wrong, bots could be as useful as blinking text in old websites – a gimmick that no one remembers,” and that product managers and developers should be careful about using bots for services to which they are ill-suited, like simple notifications and alerts.
Since it is early days for the technology, I feel safe in predicting that the excitement about bots will lead to companies deploying armies of socially inept bots being deployed willy-nilly for all kinds of tasks they either aren’t ready to handle or to which they are ill-suited.
In fact, I would argue that customer experience professionals need to be extremely careful as to how they experiment with bots. Some of that experimentation is obviously necessary in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t, but the risk of backlash from customers if the bot experience is at best annoying and at worst, infuriating enough to cause a switch to a rival brand (like having a conversation with a bot takes five times longer than just doing an online search).
Instead, customer experience professionals should take a two-pronged approach of first using bots within their own organizations to see what uses gain traction, and of monitoring the bots start-up landscape to see what use cases are coming out. While there is industry chatter about how “bots will replace apps” and how “bots are the next big thing in Internet development,” it is more likely that they will coexist with apps, websites, and other tools for some time.
For more details about Facebook’s plans for bots, check out our recent post on contextual commerce. And if you have additional questions about bots’ role in customer experience management, contact us for more information.