Bots Gone Bonkers
Chat bots may be the "next big thing," but be sure to place the emphasis on "next" -- we're early days, indeed, with this technology.
Going through my inbox the other day, the email subject line "Got bots on your mind?" called out to me. "Why, yes," I thought to myself. "How could I not, what with so many bot-oriented emails and other tech missives begging for my attention?"
The particular email I mention is in regards to an upcoming bot event, and a quote from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella featured prominently in the message body: "Bots are the new apps."
Nadella makes a good choice as a voice to herald a bot renaissance, in that he heads up an app/software/cloud giant that just so happens to offer a bot framework for developers' use. Rowan Trollope, SVP and GM of the Internet of Things and at Microsoft's UC&C nemesis, Cisco, is another one. As he told my colleague Michelle Burbick, No Jitter associate editor and Enterprise Connect program coordinator, he considers bots the next big thing -- and Cisco, too, is working on easing the way for developers looking to bring chat bots to enterprise collaboration. This it's doing in part through partners like Gupshup and Api.ai (see related post, "Bring on the Bots for Cisco Spark").
But these two high-profile industry execs certainly aren't alone in sounding the trumpet on bots. I recall a conversation I had some months ago with Asaf Amir, CEO of Chatsuite, a messaging app-based brand marketing company formerly known as Better Brands, about the increasing use of bot-fueled chat apps for customer engagement. He had a lot of interesting insight to share, but one of his points that I keep coming back to is that the chat app is evolving into an equivalent of a company website.
A chat interface can deliver a far more interactive customer experience than a mostly static website, Amir said. "Chat, as the new website, brings lots of opportunities for consumption of content in new ways."
Barry O'Sullivan, CEO of customer engagement platform maker Altocloud, shared similar thinking in a No Jitter post, "The Bots Are Coming," published earlier this year. With Facebook's Messenger bots announcement as the impetus, he wrote that the "bot wars are beginning," and described the promise of chat bot technology as being the "complete automation of many business processes, from arranging a meeting to full customer service."
As cool as some of this future-y stuff sounds, the reporter DNA in me naturally makes me wonder whether this bot fandom isn't a bit premature. You and I have probably had quite few engagements with chat bots unbeknownst to us. And that's fine. But the experience quickly sours when the conversation breaks down.
One example that comes to mind is the experience I had working with a chat bot to schedule an in-person meeting at a local tech startup. I hadn't even realized that "Amy," the assistant I'd been conversing with through email on meeting times, wasn't a real person until I got on site and mentioned to my host that I'd not been sure of best parking options around his office, and that his assistant never replied when I'd questioned her about that. "Oh," he laughed, explaining that Amy was just a calendaring bot and so naturally wouldn't have parking recommendations.
My experience is illustrative of what's wrong with bots today, agreed Gadi Shamia, COO of Talkdesk, a cloud call center provider. To be effective, bots must really be able to disrupt customer service, he said. That's a tall order today, given the sophistication of today's search engines -- "almost anything bots can do, search can do faster" -- as well as self-service mechanisms like those used for package tracking. "That's too narrow a gap for making an impact, and any intended human-like behavior that ends up not being human-like just creates frustration," he said in a recent conversation I had with him.
In fact, based on results of a Talkdesk-sponsored Harris Poll of 2,027 U.S. adults (18 and older), it would seem most Americans don't much care to chat with bots today. In that poll, conducted in early August, 93% of respondents said they value a company that staffs its customer support operations with people instead of bots, while nine in 10 agreed that engaging with a live person leads to better customer service than when chatting with a bot. In addition, 79% of respondents said they felt talking to bots was a waste of time.
So, to answer my own question, "Yes, perhaps bot fandom is premature." But I also have no doubt that machine learning and artificial intelligence, as well as contextual communications, will propel chat bots to the next level and improve their value. As Shamia pointed out, the technology does hold a lot of promise, especially around personalization, and must be part of the contact center channel discussion. "Like anything new, there's not real understanding yet of the best use cases for bots, and where they'll really fit in. People are just trying to figure it out."