Are Chatbots Really Ready for Customer Communications?

Developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning have enabled a new breed of chatbots to communicate with customers like never before. From handling basic order requests to acting as a first tier of customer support, chatbots promise both economic advantage for companies and streamlined support for tech-savvy customers. However, companies considering integrating chatbots into their customer communications plans need to do so in a way that preserves top-tier customer experience.

Even with advances in technology, today's chatbots often fall short in key measures, leading companies that rely on them too heavily to fall into the same customer experience trap that inevitably hits companies that over-zealously pursue customer support offshoring.

Chatbots have recently become a hot topic around corporate campuses due to the advancement of technology enabling computers to understand and react to natural human language better than previously possible. This new technology is leading many companies of all sizes to take another look at adding chatbots as a new layer in customer communications. Some companies are testing chatbots as a way to answer customer questions while using an app, others are integrating chatbots into online customer support processes, and more are looking at ways to add chatbots directly to appliance and vehicle customer experiences.

But why look at a still-immature technology for so many applications? The answer is three-fold:

  • First is faster response times compared to traditional communication channels. Since chatbots are always ready and can be directly integrated into websites and apps, customers can get immediate responses to their concerns without any kind of queue.
  • Second is reduction of loads on first-tier support personnel. Many basic customer issues and questions can be resolved with a few simple steps that don't really require a trained representative. Inserting chatbots at this initial level can free human personnel to work on more complex and tricky issues.
  • Third is the potential to lower support costs as the result of reducing overall support personnel requirements. Even when using third-party services, running 24/7 chatbot servers is extremely cheap in comparison to staffing call centers.

The combination of these benefits is leading many managers to ask if they should now add chatbots as a key link in their customer communications processes. For many companies the answer is a resounding "yes," but executives need to be careful not to go overboard. In the past, many companies seeking to optimize their customer communication and support processes looked to offshoring as a logical solution. However, after a few years of frustrated customers and dropping satisfaction scores, many of those same companies started pulling customer support functions back in-house. This back-and-forth was painful both financially and in terms of customer trust and loyalty. The same issues could happen again with chatbots if companies aren't careful. So what makes sense with this new technology?

Chatbots are currently best used to provide initial responses to simple queries and issues, but absolutely require quick handover to trained human representatives when the questions move beyond the basics. Chatbots also need to be given proper setup and access to information to provide a basic level of support that customers expect. Companies that only attempt to reduce costs by replacing support agents with cheaply built chatbots will quickly see a rise in dissatisfied customers and users madly attempting to skip the chatbot experience for each interaction. Companies that instead prioritize the customer experience and integrate chatbots as part of a holistic customer communication program will be rewarded with satisfied customers and streamlined operations.

As customers and workforces continue to adapt to new technologies and expect immediate responsiveness at all times, companies should absolutely be looking at chatbots to bridge gaps and elevate customer support and communications to the next level. As the technology continues to improve, the benefits to companies that integrate chatbots into their communication channels will continue to accrue. However, we are still a long way from computer-led communications being able to replace competent human staff. Before blindly implementing chatbots and automation processes, executives should take a strong look at potential impacts to overall customer experience and weigh the benefits accordingly.