Last month, when Peter Yared, the CTO and cofounder of Sapho, moderated a panel on the role of chatbots in the enterprise at VentureBeat MobileBeat 2016, opinions were drastically varied. People had varying opinions as to when, and more importantly how, chatbots would take shape within modern companies. Despite the differing opinions, all the panelists agreed that we are standing at the edge of massive change with regards to how companies use human-like — but totally machine-driven — conversations and tools to facilitate interactions internally and externally. It’s clear that chatbots are one piece of the puzzle that’s needed to improve the efficiency and engagement of enterprise software.
In short, what Peter and the panelists discussed was that disruption is coming, and chatbots are creating a shift toward more conversational interactions with machines. Conversation-based interactions are inherently a good thing — that is how human beings interact, after all. However, chatbots still have a long way to go before they are capable of natural and fluid conversation.
The disruption has already begun, but where will we see the most impact in the corporate world?
1. Customer service
One of the most obvious, well-publicized and high-value areas chatbots will make their mark is in the customer service department. We all know the pain of dealing with automated phone services (when was the last time you enjoyed calling your credit card company? Never? I thought so!). Chatbots present the opportunity to make this interaction more seamless — both externally for customers and internally for those reps that can avoid unnecessary engagements.
Some of the world’s top brands have already rolled out chatbots to assist with customer service — Uber and Pizza Hut are two notable examples of major brands stepping up to the plate. Both Uber and Pizza Hut have quite publicly collaborated with Facebook Messenger to reach customers on the platform they are already on. These early cases are simple, but lay the groundwork to train consumers to interact with services via text-based conversations. Yes, just ordering a pizza might be a fairly basic example, but from there, as conversations become more intuitive and contextual, chatbots will be able to slowly augment human service workers in more complex scenarios — like troubleshooting a technical issue, for example. By providing customers with a frictionless method to check in on the status of orders, sales, refunds, etc., consumer-focused businesses can alleviate the strain on customer service departments, freeing up service workers to focus on requests that require a human element.
2. Human resources
Another department that I see chatbots capable of effecting massive change in is human resources. HR is notoriously process-heavy, and any decision on hiring, onboarding, or firing inevitably loops in several different departments and seniority levels. Chatbots present the opportunity to give stakeholders involved in any personnel decision better access to the data stored within enterprise systems and an easy way to act upon that information quickly.
For example, a hiring manager may be able to ask, “What is the salary range for a full stack developer?” rather than hunting through past emails or clunky databases to get the information she needs. Alternatively, it could prevent HR from receiving a deluge of emails regarding where things stand. An employee could ask an HR chatbot, “How many vacation days have I taken this year?”, preventing an unnecessary back-and-forth. These types of interactions will typically be limited to simple questions without follow-ups; however, this would be incredibly useful to workers.
Lastly, data-reliant departments like marketing could easily see chatbots becoming the norm for accessing information in a timely, straightforward manner. As chatbots become more domain specific and better at processing English queries, a VP of marketing could ask, “What is the ROI on campaign C?” and then shift the strategy quickly by offering a follow-up command like “OK, divert 20 percent of marketing budget to that campaign.” The key point here isn’t just that the chatbot is able to surface the information, but it is also able to act upon it on behalf of the user based on how that user responds. To me, it’s this near-future ability to cut corners that excites me about the workplace tools of the future, like chatbots, as much as the possibility of human-machine interactions.
While these types of natural conversations aren’t quite functional enough to allow for simple back-and-forth (yet), chatbots that operate with GUIs (graphical user interfaces) have already started to make progress in our day-to-day work. Essentially, much like Google responds with graphical cards in response to textual queries, chatbots are beginning to see these types of graphical interfaces emerge through collaborations with companies like Slack, which just rolled out interactive buttons, for example. Facebook has also made progress with these, unveiling “rich bubbles” that prevent endless back and forth.
While querying chatbots are still nascent, integrating single-purpose micro apps are a workplace tool of the future that can make things easier on the target audience right now, whether that’s a consumer or an employee. Micro apps surface and deliver bite-size information in small cards that users can act upon. It’s not yet the AI dream that many hope chatbots will one day become, but it’s a step toward making personalized interactions with machines part of our daily lives.
What we can learn from the recent rise of chatbots is that much of the way we interact within businesses and with customers is broken. It’s process-heavy, and employees and customers alike usually need to jump through hoops to get the information they need or the response they want. Whatever the solution — chatbots, micro apps, or whatever — we’re experiencing a definite shift in the industry where software users are expecting more intuitive, personalized digital experiences. It’s our job to deliver them.
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