Chat bots are the tech du jour, and for good reason. No one likes the frustrating parts of customer service: the long hold times, multiple transfers, repeated requests for information, and unresolved issues. Bots offer the promise of personalized service — at lower cost and larger scale — by removing humans from the equation.
There’s huge potential upside for brands and consumers alike, especially now that Facebook is in the game, bringing with it the developer ecosystem and user base to make chatbots mainstream. That said, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking chatbots, and more broadly, AI, will replace humans — despite dystopian fantasies that machines will soon rule the world. If you’ll recall, mobile apps were going to kill the Web, just as email and online forms were going to kill the phone call. Neither has proven true.
Chatbots will change how consumers and brands do business, but they won’t make humans obsolete. In fact, I believe quite the opposite: that bots have the potential to help us improve the customer experience precisely by letting humans do what we do best.
There’s a time and a place for bots
For the foreseeable future, bots will be most useful as shortcuts for simple interactions — for example, to get a quick response with limited input-output options. So, we might chat with a bot to check when a package will arrive, to buy a toaster based on recent user reviews, or to set up a recurring snack delivery for the office. We’ll knowingly talk to brands via Facebook Messenger (or LINE, WhatsApp, and so forth), but only for specific actions.
Messaging apps aren’t popular because they offer easy ways to hail a car or buy a pair of shoes — we love them because they facilitate conversation. We all want convenience, but we still crave person-to-person interaction when we need to make a significant purchase, troubleshoot a problem, or communicate complex emotions.
Emotions can’t be captured in 1s and 0s
While deep learning methodologies are impressive, they’re still powered by people, and they rely on humans to solve the hard problems of conversation and consciousness. There isn’t any machine that has learned emotional intelligence — how to soothe an angry customer, interpret a prospect’s ambiguity, or demonstrate deep empathy. There may never be. Yet these nuanced interactions are the key to building strong customer relationships. Removing humans from the equation will solve some, but not all, of these problems, and it will require significantly more time, work, data, and money.
Conversation enables customers to emotionally connect with a brand, which can be hugely valuable and is nearly impossible to replicate. The shopping service Trunk Club has built its business around this kind of connection. The service matches customers and expert stylists, who discuss fashion preferences over the phone or in person at one of Trunk Club’s “Clubhouses.” While a bot could make personalized recommendations powered by an algorithm, customers choose and remain loyal to Trunk Club’s service because it offers real interactions with a dedicated expert.
The machines will get smarter
Facebook isn’t the first to develop a chatbot API. Slack, for example, makes it easy to build bots and custom integrations within its platform; Telegram allows developers to build interactivity into apps; API.ai is like SmarterChild on steroids. Despite years of innovation and accelerating investment in AI, bots are still in their infancy. We’re quite a long way from building software that can convincingly speak and understand human language — even if some people are initially fooled. In the meantime, human conversations will dominate the high-stakes interactions consumers have with brands, like taking out a first mortgage or choosing a home security system.
Chatbots work by way of machine learning, which means that the more people converse with businesses via chatbots, the smarter they’ll get. In his recent F8 keynote, Mark Zuckerberg said that with the combination of natural language processing and “human help” (read: trainers), people will be able to talk to Messenger bots just like they talk to friends. Virtual assistants like Facebook M and Human+AI platforms like DigitalGenius still have “human” in their product descriptions.
Rising bots lift all humans
Ultimately, chatbots will make tasks easier and cut down on some of the noise we’ve come to associate with technology. For instance, AI will advance to a place where a bot will “know” when it’s not the best “person” for the job. In that case, the next message might be “Can I connect you directly with someone?” And that someone will be a human being.
As businesses free themselves from the requests that can be addressed by chatbots, they’ll be able to invest in improving the caller experience. Ideally, they’ll dedicate more resources to employing and training experts to solve the problems bots can’t. They’ll differentiate by providing excellent conversational support over chat and on the phone. Consumers will quickly learn when they want to talk to a chatbot and when they need to make a call. And businesses will be equipped to answer in either case.
Bots are incredibly promising, but they don’t comprise the full picture. As I see it, they’re just one part of a future that involves more intelligent conversation. Chris Messina, who leads developer experience at Uber, said it well when he described conversational commerce: “…utilizing chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e., voice) to interact with people, brands, or services and bots that heretofore have had no real place in the bidirectional, asynchronous messaging context.” In this paradigm, conversation, whether with a person or with a bot, acts as a means to deliver more value through service.
Chatbots and human conversation are two sides of the same coin. As bots get smarter and more useful, they’ll specialize in completing tasks that are easy to automate. Meanwhile, human representatives will have the time and resources to solve more interesting problems. Humans won’t become obsolete any time soon. We’ll still need advice and empathy from other people. We’ll still need humanity from technology.
Kyle Christensen is VP of Marketing at Invoca. He is a SaaS veteran who has spent more than 15 years working in enterprise software. Before Invoca, Kyle was a VP of Marketing at Responsys, a leading cloud platform for cross-channel digital marketing.