At the time of writing in November 2018, chatbots are being hyped as the next big thing in marketing.

In fact, they should be talked about by every part of the business, every customer touchpoint, and even B2B interfaces of your industry or company internal processes. However, just list any new technology, chatbots are overhyped and the C-suite has no clear picture of how useful they will be in the end.

The Low Hanging Fruit

The easiest applications for chatbots are without doubt high-structured, repetitive information such as that contained in standard customer service dialogues. Whether it is information about your opening hours, making simple reservations, finding the location of offices or getting a step-by-step guide through bureaucratic processes, this is information any chatbot can give in a reliable way.

“When will my order arrive”, “can I make an appointment on Thursday at 2 pm”, or “is this item available in red”, “what is the balance on my credit card account” should all be easily programmable. Experts estimate that over 70% of calls pertaining to information contained in FAQs or customer service manuals. Agents are taking their time to answer questions, while customers with much more pressing requests are made to wait.

In other words, currently, chatbots should be used to remove large volume questions with standard answers from the queue,

Pitfalls for Basic Chatbots

NLP is the key to even basic chatbots. Different people use different expressions for the same thing. Whether you want “double cheese”, “extra cheese”, “more cheese” should all be understood without having to confirm. There is nothing more annoying than having the chatbot ask you “did you mean … ?”

The key here is to build very simple decision trees modeled on existing workflows, avoiding brand-specific lingo the customer may not be familiar with and making use of existing customer data. An airline chatbot is a good example. If I have booked 20 flights from A to B in the same time slot and class over the last 5 months, the chatbot should be smart enough to look up my past reservation data and thus not offer me choices I have previously rejected, while being flexible enough to make a slightly different reservation this time.

Personalization is the Key

This is not personalization per se, because hundreds of customers will have made the same type of reservation. Customization of a flight is not extremely complicated. Other than the date, time, class, window or aisle and perhaps the choice of meal, there is not a lot that goes into a flight reservation.

But here is where we get a little more nuanced. In the coming years, we will see more elaborate dialogs. Currently, chatbots deliver simple answers to simple questions but are unable to build on those fragmentary interactions to conduct human-like dialogs. Multi-stage conversations are not yet handled satisfactorily by chatbot and can do more harm to your brand’s reputation. An annoyed user is not a happy customer. In the example of the airline reservation, if the customer is a frequent flyer and no seat is available on the flight they are requesting, the chatbot should immediately hand off to a human operator.

It Takes Time and Common Sense

Depend on your industry, deploying chatbots takes time (estimate at least a year to get to over 70% of requests handled by the bot!) In the initial phase, make sure bot interactions are monitored and failures identified early.

Retailers, airlines, even hospitals, have started to adopt chatbots in that way. The key for customer satisfaction here is the remember that the caller should be in a relaxed state and friendly towards the chatbot service. Detection systems for natural language processing are now being developed that can tell whether a caller is angry, agitated, or in distress — in which case a human interlocutor is preferable than a chatbot.

Finally, there will be situations where are chatbot is not the right technology. The complaints hotline should not be the first place to launch a chatbot. Repeat purchases of standard goods are easier handled by a chatbot than complicated orders. In banking, new generations may trust computer-controlled systems more than older generations, but always keep in mind who your customer is and how familiar with the technology they are.

Think Voice For the Long Term

While chatbots on social media platforms or your website are easier to implement because of the prevalence of text parsing, the future belongs to voice. 3-5 years from now voice will be the key enabler of chatting, and your business should be ready for it. In the meantime, take baby steps and pay attention not to annoy your existing customer base.