Are chatbots really transforming business?

Are chatbots really revolutionary? We look at what the fuss is about and whether they will really transform business in the coming years?

Artificial intelligence may be in the early stages, but its impact is already being felt in everyday life. And if there’s one area of this technology that’s blossomed in recent years – the chatbot. They’re essentially intelligent computer programmes that are capable of having conversations with humans.

Using natural language processing techniques, chatbots can develop convincing conversation exchanges with people. When conversing with human beings, they will either use audio or methods. Whatever the case, they usually serve a helpful process. For instance, many businesses use chatbots as part of their customer service strategies. So if someone has a question about a product or service, instead of ringing up the company or sending a lengthy email, they can just send queries over an instant messaging service –Facebook Messenger, for example, has adopted chatbots. In these types of scenarios, consumers can get answers fast - but customer service representatives can also boost productivity because they no longer need to spend time answering simple questions.

Chatbots are already making an impact on the business world. Research from Gartner suggests that 25 per cent of customer service operations will be using them by 2020. But while businesses clearly see potential in these technologies, there are concerns; a new study from PointSource claims that 80 per cent of consumers don’t trust chatbots when companies use them for after-sales support. So the question is, are they really revolutionary?

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Plan carefully

Businesses are increasingly adopting chatbot systems as part of ambitious automation strategies. Rob Brown, who is associate vice president at Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, believes that they’re rising in popularity on the back of an expanding artificial intelligence and app ecosystem. “Chatbots are gaining in popularity in a number of industries as an important customer service tool, with financial services and insurance particularly keen to roll them out. Their rise is being driven by several converging trends: the popularity of messaging apps, the explosion of the app ecosystem, advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive technologies, conversational user interfaces and a wider reach of automation,” he says.

At the same time, Brown takes a somewhat sceptical view. He says that if businesses rush to implement chatbots into their customer service departments, then they risk upsetting customers rather than helping them. “However, the current hype around the chatbot phenomenon may not prove to be sustainable over time without a stronger business rationale and better short-term results. In the context of chatbots, it is actually not about ‘the robot’ at all, it is all about how easy the end-user finds it to use, and simply whether it works or not,” he tells us.

He urges businesses to think about the long-term benefits offered by chatbots and plan their IT strategies around them. User interface, he believes, is a big area that firms should consider when developing these services. “To get it right, businesses should start preparing for the coming bot age now if they have not begun to already. This means peeking into the future and designing bots to respond to today’s customer needs, such as personalization, context, meaning, first contact resolution, management, as well as bot-human interaction and interface design,” he says.

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Kevin Linsell, chief technology officer of cloud provider Timico, agrees with Brown that businesses must think about the challenges posed by chatbots. He says there could be serious security risks if they’re not used with care. "Security considerations around chatbots are not that dissimilar to that of traditional service agents – people. You must still treat personal information securely, protect it and retain it only as required and agreed. GDPR applies to information regardless of how it is gathered,” he says.

“One area of security that must be considered is potential hacking. Not necessarily to access the information that the chatbot knows but to hack the communication chain, and the trust, that the chatbot has. Imagine that instead of calling your bank and speaking to an individual you interact with a chatbot? If hackers could change the questions asked or where the responses are sent then they can gather vital information and breach security.


Transforming the workplace

Clearly, chatbots are making big waves in customer service departments, but they could also transform the workplace. Heide Abelli, senior vice president of content product management of Skillsoft, says AI assistants will become even more intelligent over the coming years. As well as answering simple questions, they’ll be contextually aware and will be able to help employees improve specialist skills.

“They’ll know who you are, what learning content is relevant to you, what time of day you like to learn, how you like to learn and so on. Looking further ahead into the future digital learning agents will take on additional roles, including that of interactive coach or mentor,” she says.

“Expensive human business coaches will likely become a thing of the past. The AI-powered digital coach will monitor performance, and record improvement over time. When switched on the digital coach will be behind-the-scene during every conversation, listening and recording verbal comments – all in the spirit of personal improvement.”

Abelli says these bots will almost act as teachers. She adds: “It could be used, for example, to understand how often certain words are used in a feedback session, or identify if cognitive bias is introduced in a conversation. It will even be able to record biometric information – how much eye contact is made and interpret facial expressions – to give the most personalized feedback possible.”


Personable bots

Shashi Nirale, senior vice president of Servion Global Solutions, says the biggest benefit of chatbots is that they allow companies to develop a better understanding of their customers. “AI chatbots can utilize customer data to anticipate individual customer needs, and understand the context in which the customer is getting in touch, making the interaction more personalized. These intuitive systems will not only improve the customer service by giving greater context to problems, but can also accelerate the resolution time by even engaging pro-actively through an automated outbound channel,” he says.

Nirale believes that continued advancements in artificial intelligence will help companies respond to complex queries. They’ll also become more personable. He says: “Very soon we will also see artificial intelligence driven voice activation taking over a range of customer interactions. For example, Swedbank deployed Nuance to introduce a basic AI called Nina, which learns what customers want and how best to help them, by assimilating searches made on the website and enquiries at the contact centre.

“Nina now handles a large number of transactional calls that would have previously been handled by a human, while more complex enquiries – for example mortgage applications – are passed to a person. Although over time we expect even these functions will be taken over.”

There’s no doubt that chatbots are an exciting technological breakthrough for the business world. They not only give companies a way to respond to customer queries quickly and accurately, but also boost efficiencies overall. It’s clear that they’re incredibly useful in the workspace, too. However, these bots are still in the early days, and there are challenges firms should consider when planning to implement them.