Chatbots: The future of customer service?

It’s not particularly uncommon to come across organizations, businesses, and people who still implicitly perceive customer support and customer service as something not really worth investing in. Just a couple of days ago, I faced a problem with a Nordic low-cost airline carrier that has almost every year won several prizes and other forms of recognition.

My problem was that I was unable to change my password on their website; I followed the instructions to reset my email, and after I couldn’t do this by myself, I decided to give them a call to get it done. I didn’t have to wait a long time to talk with an agent, but then the problems started. The agent was unable to retrieve my information, and I had to spell my name out in various ways. I don’t consider myself as fluent as a native English speaker, but I always get things done, and after a while, I decided to spell my name out in the NATO phonetic alphabet.

The agent was still unable to understand me, and I tried different ways to steer the agent to try out different ways to put my name to various fields in their CRM system. I admit that I was pretty frustrated after talking with the agent for ten minutes, and I was still waiting my issue to be resolved. I laid down my problem out several times, and as the agent was unable to help me out (“I can’t find your personal information from our systems…”, “Can you spell out your name (again)…”, “Can you spell out your email address…”, etc.), I asked her to connect me to another agent. The agent unkindly stated that this cannot be done and I should call again (and hope that I would be connected to someone who would understand English better). So I thanked the agent the help, but I felt pretty frustrated. I decided to give them quantitative feedback at the end of the call, and let’s hope that they will listen to the particular call to improve their service interaction.

I decided to contact the same company via their online chat, and as you already guess, I had to restate the whole problem I was facing. I thought that the problem would be resolved within a couple of minutes, but I was wrong, once again. So, the problem was not fixed with the first contact or even with the second contact. As I am writing this article, the problem is still unresolved, and I am thinking about filing a complaint for them to think the service from the customer’s point of view.

It’s obvious that companies still don’t pay enough attention to customer service. Customer service is still after so many years managed with the wrong set of metrics, i.e. the primary focus is on the number of contacts, time to handle a contact, and preventing any further contacts. Customer service, whether it’s about ordering books, airline tickets or gadgets, is still very much unappreciated both by companies and clients. Sure, the role of customer service is not predefined, and it varies by industries and businesses within a particular industry. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

There is still need for a human factor in customer service, but in my case, a chatbot – “a computer program which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods” [1] – would have been enough. I could have told to the chatbot that I face a problem, and if the chatbot had been smart enough, it could have provided a solution in no time.

A chatbot is a service, powered by rules and sometimes artificial intelligence, that you interact with via a chat interface.
– Matt SchlichtThe Complete Beginner’s Guide To Chatbots

Today, chatbots are advanced enough to create new primordial forms of self-service. Facebook offers Messenger chatbots, and although they have been somewhat misunderstood, have made convenient and efficient B2C interactions possible [2]. We are still waiting for truly conversational chatbots to become a reality, and lately, several startups and incumbents have started to create their own chatbots and bot platforms to revolutionize customer service. For example, a Finnish startup Giosg has been in the forefront of providing both live chat and chatbot solutions for various companies.

So… What are chatbots all about?

There are various forms of chatbots available. Some of them are still quite hard to communicate with, and at the other extreme, we have relatively intelligent chatbots that understand your various requests even if you don’t write down exactly what you want to do. In the end, all chatbots try to emulate human interaction, but in some cases, it’s quite obvious that you have to insert your requests in a very particular format to get the job done. Chatbots are still in their infancy, and as almost every business needs to interact with a broad scale of customer requests and inquiries, there are multiple possibilities to carry out a wide variety of support and service functions with the help of chatbots. There are various arguments in favor of chatbots, e.g. streamlining the interactions throughout the customer journey, increasing conversion and engagement, and in some cases, even empowering clients to carry out things when they are on the move.

It’s not surprising that chatbots allow service providers efficiently to leverage on mobile technologies and social networking that have dramatically changed the way we interact with each other and form relationships with one another. With the rise of mobile technologies, platforms, and apps, it starts to make sense that organizations offer more convenient forms of self-service. Chatbots, as they currently are deployed, are not there to solve any kind of problem imaginable, but instead of having static and often hard to read FAQs, a chatbot could turn out to be a much better single point of contact in the case the client needs to know something immediately. Chatbots are evolving, and that is because our expectations are changing.

How to use chatbots in customer service?

For example, in my airline story, it would have been much better for me to present the problem to a chatbot in a text (or audio) format rather than forcing me to give a call and then to have a chat later with the customer service. If the chatbot can’t resolve the issue, it makes sense that a human being takes over and ultimately tries to settle the issue – “bad” chatbots are bad customer service. Also, if I am logged into a particular online service, it makes sense for a chatbot to save and retrieve past conversations, and this allows the discussion to continue even if I didn’t have the possibility to end it last time I communicated with the chatbot.

The main issue at the moment is that chatbots are at their best when handling domain specific requests and not with a wide range of different issues. There is hope as personalized conversational chatbots are being developed, and these more advanced chatbots might be able to carry out a wide variety of requests and tasks, most probably learning on the fly.

Unlike my above-mentioned call to the customer service or later live chat with an agent, a chatbot can at its best learn from previous conversations and retrieve the past interactions. If I would call to the customer service of that particular service provider today (something that I most certainly will not do), they probably wouldn’t even know that I had called in last week and that time discussed this and that. An advanced chatbot, on the other hand, is capable of retrieving past conversations so that one doesn’t need to keep the whole discussion log just for the sake of reminding oneself what was discussed last time. What’s even more important is that unlike human customer service agents, chatbots don’t sleep, eat or take vacations – they are always available online 24/7/365.

Even if chatbots wouldn’t change everything at once, they still hold a great promise of radically altering customer service. Chatbots will not replace human customer service in the near future, but they will actually address forms of support and care that are not being appropriately handled by the service providers at the moment. I would even hold that chatbots are essential for organizations in rotating to the service-dominant logic.

 

[1Chatbot. (2017, June 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved Jun 17, 2017.

[2] There are various kinds of chatbots out there, and they can be built on different platforms. Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Skype Business, Telegram, WhatsApp, and Slack offer multiple opportunities for chatbots but there are also platform-independent chatbots available.

Photo credit: John Jackson via Pexels.com / CC CC0

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