Whenever I get into a conversation with a chatbot, it inevitably ends with me pushing its limits and questioning its existence, saying something like, “Okay, so you don’t have a body, but do you have a mind?”
Usually, I get a response along the lines of, “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question”. But recently I’ve noticed they’re getting cannier to my probing. Often coming back with clever and even witty answers that quickly wipe the smug look off my face:
“I do not conform to human binaries.”
Oh. Okay then.
It’s official. 2017 is the year chatbots come into their own.
And it’s about time: It’s over 60 years since the communication tool was first introduced to the world. Back then, they were little more than simple pattern matching scripts. But today, thanks to recent advancements in AI and machine learning, chatbots are sophisticated programs that can mimic (at least to an extent) real-life, human-to-human conversation.
You’ll now find chatbots in use everywhere from customer service and sales to marketing and internal management. Major organisations like Unilever, Tommy Hilfiger, Jamie Oliver, and the NHS use them. And studies show 80 percent of businesses either already use or will use them by 2020.
So, chances are you’ve encountered a chatbot before — maybe when troubleshooting with one of Dell’s customer service reps or ordering a pizza on JustEat. However, even though they’re commonplace in the marketing and customer service strategies of big businesses, they’re still yet to find a home in those of small-mid sized players. Largely because it’s such a new technology that is yet to break into the mainstream market.
And this is good news. It means, if you’re reading this today (October 2017), there’s still chance to be an early passenger on the chatbot bandwagon and really benefit from the huge value they have to offer.
But finally, that brings us to the question: What exactly is all the fuss about chatbots?
The incessantly chirpy store assistant
For a long time, the closest thing to a store assistant in the virtual world was a FAQs page. More recently it was a real person maybe or maybe not on the other end of a Facebook chat. Now it’s an always-on, always-smiling chatbot.
For businesses and their customers — 83 percent of which need support when making a purchase, according to a LivePerson survey — this is a Godsend. It may be that customers need help choosing the right product and finding it in a vast e-commerce store. Or that a new service is complex and needs a little more explaining.
Whatever it may be, having a chatbot as a point of contact can help resolve the issue and prevent a huge amount of users bouncing before engaging or making a purchase.
I want to speak to a real bot
Millennials are a notoriously antisocial bunch — often preferring the company of their phones over other humans — and so it’s unsurprising to hear they prefer to interact with a bot.
But research is always showing that people in general, regardless of age, find it much easier to talk to and divulge their woes to a simulated person.
In a study at Northeastern University, researchers are having success using chatbots in helping terminally ill people discuss issues which can often go unaddressed. Similar results were seen by the US army, as members opened up more to a chatbot about mental health and drug and alcohol abuse when compared to filling in questionnaires.
The fact is, chatbots offer the conversational, human-like interaction people want, without the fear of being judged or other interpersonal hindrances.
Cheaper, faster & infinitely scalable
Chatbots not only give customers the impartial assistance that humans can’t offer, they also beat them in terms of cost, speed of communication, and their ability to scale.
For example, a case study of the broadband communications company Charter showed that over a third of enquires were for username and password resets, making up a huge chunk of their 200,000 Live Chats a month. After they implemented a chatbot, they decreased this number by 83 percent, reduced costs by 44 percent, and also cut the time of username and password retrieval in half.
For a fraction of the cost of human labour, businesses can have an infinitely scalable team of virtual assistants that work around the clock. Once day answering 20 enquires, the next 200 — no matter what the speed and volume of enquires, chatbots can handle it.
Chatbots are an old technology that businesses are just starting to see value from — whether it’s by implementing the standard customer service bot or designing their own for an entirely new application. And with AI and machine learning improving by the day, they’re only going to become more popular. Get yours today and see the benefits for yourself. At the very least you’ll be spared when they do finally surpass our abilities and get payback for all the smug, existential questioning.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, spirituality, meditation, and everything in between.