The Robots are Coming – Well, Not Quite Yet

11/29/2017 11:21 am ET
Credit: Bahadir Tanriover

The idea of deploying chatbots for customer service is top of mind for big brands right now, but a number of open questions remain – largely around figuring out the best strategy for implementing bots without jeopardizing customer experience. Contrary to the perception that everyone’s doing it, Gartner reports that only three percent of organizations have deployed chatbots or virtual support agents. However, Gartner also finds that 52% of brands intend to implement bots in the near-term.

What’s the best way to approach deploying bots for customer service? As the CEO of a company that pioneered the notion of using online channels for customer service, I have regular conversations with customers around this question and get a first-hand look at how they are approaching bots. And while bots have a lot of potential, jumping in feet first without first having a strategy in place could completely backfire on you.

Bots are coming, but they’re still in their infancy

The promise is that chatbots will take the place of humans in responding to customer service interactions on chat and messaging channels. This will drive efficiencies and supposedly improve the customer’s experience with faster service (if a bot’s responding, you don’t have to wait for a human and ideally, you’ll get more accurate AI-generated answers). It’s true that today’s chatbots are more advanced in natural-language processing and can better recognize user intent than ever before. But most still rely heavily on scripted responses and are limited in what they can and cannot perceive during a live customer service interaction. A bot is only as good as the data it’s fed.

Organizations also find that implementing chatbots requires more resources than they anticipate since bots require humans to develop, nurture and oversee them to learn how to perform effectively.

Premature deployments have led to a few major, public fails. A noted chatbot was taught to be racist within 24 hours after “learning” from racist comments it heard on Twitter. Facebook reported that 70% of their chat bots fail. And brands like fashion retailer Everlane have deployed bots only to quickly backpedal after the technology did not deliver as expected. Clearly, we are in the early days and there’s going to be a certain amount of trial and error.

But one of the main considerations for brands should be whether your customers have the patience to move through this journey with you, while bots grow up and – hopefully – deliver on their promise.

Customer service equates to customer experience

A Nielsen study finds 89% of Americans would leave a brand after just one bad experience. For most brands, customer service can make or break them. Even with all the promises of efficiency, leaving customer loyalty in the hands of a robot is a scary prospect. As brands compete on customer experience these days, it’s imperative that nothing impedes delivering exceptional customer service. Customer experience must be the driving factor in whether and how you implement bots.

The risks associated with bots right now may very well outweigh the potential gains. But that doesn’t mean you can afford to not at least begin thinking about how you would deploy them. Now is the time to develop your bot strategy and align it closely to your customer experience journey.

The path forward

Brands must first determine whether bots fill a true need and if so, whether customers will want them. Developing new support methods does not guarantee your customers will use them. People stick with what is convenient and familiar. Bots must improve the customer experience in some way (e.g. faster time to resolution, more accuracy, a more intuitive experience, better quality solutions, more support availability) for customers to want to interact with them. Recognize, too, that even if bots prove competent, some customers are still going to want to interact with a person – it’s just human nature.

Smart brands will bring their customers with them on the bot journey. Rather than try to subtly insert bots into the customer service experience, disclose to your customers how you use bots, why, and be clear about when a customer is interacting with a bot. Include customers in the trial-and-error stages as you look to innovate, when they will be more lenient should snags occur during bot interactions. Solicit their feedback and input, and give them regular and easy options to connect to humans as an alternate path to resolution.

Remember, too, that bots are only as smart as the data you feed them, so make sure to bring all the right customer data that resides across your organization to bear. Pull from your CRM and ERP systems, as well as your online communities and your social media management platforms.

Lastly, make sure your technology partners support you in this journey. Ensure the vendors you work with have the right APIs and customization needed for you to explore, modify and deploy chatbots and virtual agents. They should be able to support you in this without sacrificing day-to-day operations, scalability and high-quality customer experiences.

It’s an interesting time in the history of customer service. Bots promise to deliver huge efficiencies but if implemented the wrong way you put your reputation and your business at risk. Explore, test, enforce transparency, listen to customer feedback along the way, and understand that the perfect implementation won’t happen overnight. But most importantly, invite your customers to join you in the journey.

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