Advances in artificial intelligence mean chatbots can automate more customer interactions than ever before. According to analyst firm Gartner, the usage of chatbots will triple through 2019 as enterprises seek to increase customer satisfaction and reduce operating costs. But not all chatbots are equal.
For businesses, chatbots (sometimes called “virtual agents” or “virtual customer assistants”) need to be smart in order to be effective. Intelligent chatbots integrate with enterprise systems and the related rules; they can parse big data and use artificial intelligence to help customers resolve issues or perform transactions, such as paying a bill or extending a subscription.
Some chatbots interact with customers to resolve issues, conduct transactions, and answer questions. The fact that these chatbots are bounded — in other words, operating within a certain context such as mortgages, utilities, or wireless — ensures they can better support the conversation.
Because of advances in AI, businesses can artificially replicate the effectiveness of their best agents, reducing customer frustration and wait times. However, it is essential to remember chatbots are still an outward facing extension of the brand, and even though they are machines and not human, customer expectations around their performance will only heighten as the technology becomes commonplace.
Chatbot deployments should be approached in a similar way as any other frontline employee.
Chatbots today and tomorrow
Intelligent chatbots can be deployed on nearly any interface: web, mobile, social, messaging app, voice response, and SMS. They operate in real time and can even predict what a customer is trying to do, offering specific help when they detect that a customer may need assistance. For example, if a customer has a bank mortgage, a chatbot can offer assistance with an understanding of the customer’s chosen product and history in mind. As we look to the future, chatbots will be deployed through augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and other emerging technologies.
Over time, chatbots will be the primary point of customer interaction. This increased self-service will mean reduced call and email volume in traditional support channels. Recently, a leading global airline created an avatar to personify their chatbot. The chatbot serves as an automated concierge, providing customers with instant, accurate answers to their questions about flight status and baggage rules. The chatbot has helped the airline reduce call and chat volume by 40 percent.
One of Canada’s largest banks introduced an intelligent chatbot as a virtual agent and saw email volume decrease by 50 percent at launch — and then experienced another 23 percent drop throughout the first year. At the same time, it reduced phone calls by 25 percent.
A major U.S. health insurance provider improved the experience for its 4 million members with an intelligent chatbot deployed as a virtual agent. With the chatbot answering 150,000 questions per month, the company is saving thousands of dollars in contact center costs by reducing calls to its staff.
Another development that’s not so far off is that intelligent chatbots will achieve almost perfect accuracy within the bounds of the context in which they operate. In the first 11 months of one major North American utility’s chatbot, it answered more than 720,000 questions with an accuracy rate of 94 percent. In another case, a major retailer has seen its chatbot answer 45,000 questions a month about order status, shipping, returns, and other common areas of interest with 96 percent accuracy. Every one of those interactions builds the accuracy of the chatbot, which grows more intelligent over time.
Humans vs. machines: Can’t we all just get along?
Customer service agents may feel threatened by artificial intelligence solutions, which could lead to internal resistance to the adoption of new technology. To achieve customer service digital transformation, companies have to manage these cultural challenges along with the technology.
Human agents and chatbots ideally work together to improve the customer experience. Intelligent chatbots help customer care organizations by minimizing menial or repetitive work for agents. Chatbots become better at their tasks is by mining agent interactions to learn new customer intents. Chatbots can reduce average handle time by suggesting agent responses while the agent is chatting with the customer. This ensures consistency in answer delivery and empowers the agent to draw from the same knowledge bank as the chatbot.
A chatbot should escalate to a live agent when the customer’s request is complex, such as in the case of a customer looking to switch to a competitor. The same is true any time a customer wants to speak with a human.
Here are a few things that companies can tell their customer experience employees to help effect the cultural aspects of digital transformation:
- “You can skip the mundane tasks.” Virtual agents and chatbots can automate common responses to routine asks so agents can focus on handling high-level, complex queries that can only be solved by humans.
- “You can engage customers in a smarter way.” CX technology that connects customer data points across channels enables agents to have knowledge of the entire customer journey and context for the current interaction. This gives agents the ability to respond to actual customer intent, leading to less customer frustration and better agent recommendations.
- “You can generate revenue, not just solve problems.” By using predictive analytics to understand what a customer is trying to accomplish, agents can make proactive recommendations that lead to upsell and cross-sell opportunities, turning them from problem-solvers into revenue generators who contribute directly to the bottom line.
The agent of tomorrow will be a fundamentally different breed, leveraging advances in artificial intelligence to drive better outcomes for the customer. Customer service as a discipline will offer well-paid jobs and employ people with the skills to architect and oversee the kinds of conversations that drive revenue and customer loyalty. Intelligent chatbot technology is a game changer that will continue to bring sophistication to call center operations, ushering in a new workforce of digitally minded employees who train machines to work smarter.
Scott Horn is chief marketing officer at 7, an AI-driven customer experience company.