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Chatbots benefit the customer service market, but not a cure-all

Contact centers are searching for ways to bring efficiency to their processes without sacrificing customer-service quality. Chatbots offer one avenue.

Lately, the chatter on how to improve the customer service market and boost efficiency in contact centers has centered...

on chatbots. While fielding customer inquiries is a time-consuming task for agents, chatbots can help alleviate some of the strain through machine learning and automation.

Chatbots can alleviate some of the time-consuming inquiries by enabling customers to get rapid information and answers to their questions by interacting with an automated bot that's designed to mimic the responses of humans through programming and repeated machine learning to train the bot. Given that contact centers have long been considered a drain in the customer service market, finding ways to automate tasks is critical.

Chatbots are automated conversational tools embedded in messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger, that mimic human conversation, often relying on text analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. By automating tasks that were formerly the province of contact-service agents, chatbots enable agents to focus their energy on higher-level tasks and make contact centers more efficient overall.

Bots aren't a revolutionary step in self-service, but more of an evolutionary step. The concept is similar to interactive voice response (IVR), with a friendlier user interface and a more complex data-retrieval process.

Technology improvements help UI

Technology supporting IVR systems has limitations, resulting in customers needing to utilize touch-tone technology to self-direct their inquiry. The customer journey can be frustrating and circular for customers, including offering multiple layers of menus, presenting multiple options on each menu, difficult-to-understand prompts and so on,. which can make the customer service market challenging.

Technology has made major strides with the growth of artificial intelligence. As a result, customers no longer need to self-direct; instead, they can speak and write in a natural way, and the technology can understand the specific inquiry or question and respond in kind.

Chatbots can work across multiple channels of communication. They can understand natural language, spoken or written, so the customer experience is no different than interacting with a human being.

In the world of IVR, if a customer wants to find out the status of their next flight, it would go like this:

  • Listen to a menu, and press the appropriate phone key for flight information.
  • Listen to a request to enter the flight number and enter via phone keys.

It sounds simple, but listening to menus and selecting proper prompts can be a challenging process -- especially if driving.

In the world of bots, checking on a flight's status would go like this:

  • What is the status of my next flight?

It cannot get any simpler than that.

Chatbots are innovative technology and can save time, but they also have limitations, including the following:

  • They may not be effective with complex customer inquiries. Similar to IVR, chatbots are best at handling simple inquiries. A chatbot can answer a question, such as, "Is my connecting flight on time?" When it comes to a more complex issue, such as reissuing a ticket, a human is most likely best suited to assist a customer.
  • They may not be effective in cultivating a customer relationship over time. Again, similar to IVR, chatbots are great at answering simple questions, but they cannot have a conversation with a customer -- e.g., "I understand the weather is nice in Hawaii this time of the year." Additionally, they cannot connect on a personal basis, which limits the customer relationship.
  • They can drive a poor customer experience when channel pivots are necessary. Processes must allow for the smooth handoff between a bot and a human. In some cases, a chatbot cannot provide a meaningful response to a customer inquiry, and the customer should be transferred over to a live agent. It's critical to ensure a smooth pivot, not forcing the customer to repeat themselves and providing information to the agent so they understand the process the customer has already gone through.
  • They cannot interpret human speech with 100% accuracy. In some cases, chatbots do not interpret a customer inquiry correctly, whether it's because of a customer's accent, background noise or some other factor. Chatbot systems must continually learn from missed opportunities and improve effectiveness and accuracy.

Chatbots are a promising technology. They can respond to customer inquiries within several communication channels, and customers can use natural language, spoken or written, to interact. But, as with all technologies, there are limitations to bot automation's effectiveness within the customer service market, and it is critical for organizations to build supportive processes to ensure customers have a fluid, positive experience.

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