I’m known to be a bit negative about email. When you receive a few hundred of them a day, it tends to make you a little skittish, even a little depressed. Yet, it’s still my primary form of communication, especially when I’m trying to find answers to problems. In our highly digitized world, it’s amazing we still use asynchronous communication so often.
Here’s my big problem with how this all works. When you send a message, there’s no way of knowing if the recipient is doing anything about it. Sure, there are apps for this. In marketing, it’s an art form. Even Outlook can generate a “read receipt,” but I’m talking about getting an immediate response that tells you what kind of action the message recipient is going to take. Instead, we send an email and hope someone eventually reads it and responds in a way that is actually useful.
Let’s say you are interested in a car on Craigslist. A few days ago, I actually started a new project with my nephew to restore a Range Rover. I’ve been looking into tires, fenders, and car parts. Most, if not all, of the retailers who sell the parts I need have a sales and support email listed on their site. When I asked about whether a fender will fit on a 1990 model, my email flittered off into the ether. I received an automated reply, but I’m basically stalled out waiting to see if the part will work.
I can see how this might change someday with chatbots. If the momentum continues, many of these sites may switch from using human-powered chat (which is only marginally helpful — in most cases, I seem to need it when it’s not available) to using a chatbot.
“Does this fender part work on my 1990 Range Rover,” I’d ask. The bot would respond by asking about the part in question and offering some basic product guidance. It would query a database and determine if the part would work and let me know. It might even process the order. I’ve saved a ton of time, I can search for other parts, the retailer has made a sale, and a human who would otherwise be tasked with responding to my email has moved on to more complex and important activities.
Chatbot interactions like this go beyond replacing retail inquiries and tech support questions. This type of bot already exists, at least to some extent (even if the A.I. is fairly rudimentary at this point in bot evolution). I want a chatbot for more than sales and support; I want one for almost every situation where email is the preferred mode of communication. I’d ask about my college tuition payment for one of my kids, check with a state park bot about reserving a camping site, and even use one on the job — asking a PR bot to schedule an interview for me. If I need to contact an individual, I’d talk to a personal chatbot instead of sending an email, and perhaps find out that the person is in Lisbon on vacation. I’d interact with the bot instead and get the information I need. No email chain equals success.
Honestly, I hate waiting. Email is a mountain of digital mayhem in my life; it’s a flawed system we use because it’s really the only one that is prevalent enough to work. (The 4×4 retailer in my town has an email address, even though they have absolutely no idea what the word “chatbot” means.) It’s become the default glue that holds everything together, but that glue is starting to crack and peel.
Here’s another example of why I want chatbots to gain more of a foothold. I had a few questions on my AT&T bill the other day. My son has been surfing YouTube videos way too often, and there were some overage charges. Live chat was available, but I usually avoid it. It always takes 20 minutes, because the live agent keeps asking me questions, trying to get me to do my own troubleshooting, and the process is generally frustrating. So I use email. I send in my question, then I sit and wait for a day or two. Someone eventually writes back asking me more questions.
If chatbots replaced email in a more obvious way, I’d have my answer almost immediately. Or, at least, I’d have part of my answer, and a human agent would be able to see my interactions and my plea for leniency. (Cat videos should not cost an extra $15.)
What will it take for this to become a reality? In many ways, we’re on the right course — the platforms and dev tools already exist. Messaging and other support methods, like forum discussions, are already starting to replace email. (Try getting tech support through the Uber app — there is no email involved.) Once the A.I. improves, my great hope is that chatbots will become a primary form of communication. It won’t happen before I restore this Range Rover. Then again, at this pace, maybe it will.