Hey, Siri… is that you?

Imagine not being able to tell the difference between a real person and a chatbot. Well, making such a distinction is getting harder with each passing month. Remember the days when interacting with a bot was a clunky experience that had you, at best, mildly irritated? Modern-day chatbots aren’t just competent, they have personality. They can be jovial, empathetic, and even share the occasional meme. In fact, chatbot technology’s ability to deliver a great customer experience (CX) has come so far that last year 40 per cent of people of all ages said they preferred to use chatbots when shopping online.

That’s a remarkable upvote for a technology whose underlying premise of quick and clever automated resolution was, not so long ago, closer to sci-fi fantasy than reality. Fast forward to a Covid-scarred economic landscape where there are fewer people free to deal with enquiries, and ties of brand loyalty fray with every sub-par customer experience. Against this backdrop, chatbots and other artificial intelligence-powered interactive minions are emerging as star players in a booming digital economy. Meeting consumers’ needs, in a cost-sustainable way, has never been so important or strategic – especially when the traditional one-time purchase has been replaced by signing up to ongoing services for everything: from cars to electronics, groceries to booze. The result has been that subscription e-commerce has grown 350 per cent in the past seven years. Conversely, customers are also quick to cancel a subscription and disengage from a brand that isn’t delivering a superior experience.

So, in today’s CX battleground, organisations are having to move beyond the basic product/transaction focus of the past and instead invest in meeting customer demands 24/7 as smoothly and effectively as possible. More than that, businesses need to find ways to foster and nourish long-term customer relationships – and at scale. For most, delivering the level of immediate service consumers expect can only be achieved through automation and using chatbot technology where conversations are now often indistinguishable from those with a “real” person. That sense of on-brand authenticity is vital to success.

From Eliza to Alexa

Compared with many other areas of innovation, creating technology that can “chat” has been relatively long in the making. Back in 1950, for example, British mathematician, computer scientist and codebreaker Alan Turing published a paper which suggested a basis for testing whether a machine could think. To pass the Turing Test, a machine had to be judged as being indistinguishable from a human in a typed conversation. Ever since, academics and commercial developers have refined the complex technologies required to conduct meaningful and credible conversations, which today take the form of chatbots.

The “chatbot” moniker didn’t come into use until the mid-1990s, by which time progress had been made, initially by computer scientists such as Professor Joseph Weizenbaum, whose 1966 ELIZA program took on the role of psychotherapist when in conversation. While ELIZA’s capabilities were impressive (it’s still possible to have a live conversation with ELIZA here), it was also easy to see why these technologies weren’t considered commercially viable until recently.

Today, massive advances in shared processing power, plus years of heavy investment and thousands of bright minds, have led to the rise of AI-powered general-purpose technologies, whose applications in sentiment tracking, natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning are all driving chatbots to become the ultimate customer-service assistants. The best examples can detect words, recognise moods and respond accordingly, deploying bi-directional human-like communication tactics, all the while generating the insights required for an outstanding experience at every stage of a customer journey, 24/7.

Source – Istock

Within contact centres, for example, chatbots are being employed to simplify customer interactions by enabling dialogue around simple questions, complete purchases, or scheduling meetings, without the need for a live human agent. These bots can be the first port of call for customers with easily resolved enquiries, ensuring fast responses while simultaneously reducing repetitive tasks for agents and preserving their time for more complex enquiries.

Chatbots can also provide live updates to keep customers connected, saving human agents from repeating monotonous tasks. What’s more, NLP can transcribe speech to text automatically, supporting compliance with stringent industry regulations. This functionality also provides agents with relevant data on demand, reducing information discrepancies, and ensuring a fully connected customer journey can be delivered for every enquiry. In every case, the main aim of implementing chatbots is not to replace human agents but instead to ease their workloads and emphasise quality of interactions.

Today, organisations can design custom solutions to meet their specific requirements and build a solution that delivers the ideal outcome for a growing range of customer engagement scenarios. Ideally, intelligent chatbots and scalable automation deliver a consistently high-quality interaction, prioritising customer preferences. The result is not only better CX, but a more efficiently engaged contact centre process that is in sync with demand, and ultimately, can meet the needs of customers directly or escalate them to a higher level.

Remember, implementing chatbots is not about finding shortcuts to good customer service or simply boosting the bottom line by automating human jobs. They should always be implemented in concert with customer service professionals to maximise quality of service for a generation of people who increasingly want the option to ask questions and get help at any time and via any device.

All of which will make the human and the bot ever harder to tell apart.

Martin Taylor

Martin Taylor

Co-founder and Director of Redwood Technologies Group, a leading cloud communications tech provider with Content Guru and Redwood global operating entities. Innovator of significant IP and award-winning 'storm' services for public and private-sector.

© Business Reporter 2021

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