By Patrick O’Kell

If you’ve spent any time on social networks like Facebook or Twitter, you’ve probably seen the word ‘chatbot’ pass through your timeline many times. In short, a chatbot is a computerized communications service that follows specific rules to interact with people in a text based environment. They are becoming increasingly sophisticated and some are starting to incorporate artificial intelligence as well. Chatbots serve many purposes, from functional to fun, and can live in any messaging or chat product such as Facebook Messenger, Slack, Telegram, or even plain old text messages.

Companies planning for the future use chatbots for one of several different benefits. They may use a chatbot to make it easier to engage with a brand in real time, inject their brand’s personality into the consumer’s online experience, or to help simplify the process their consumers go through. Chatbots can answer questions 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, they can answer even difficult questions nearly instantly, and they treat everyone fairly and equally without fatigue or boredom. A few popular types of chatbots include:

  • Retail: Help people review relevant products, including various features and pricing, and escort them through the purchase journey more easily and quickly. Kayak on Facebook has quite a nice chatbot for finding flights and hotels. Tommy Hilfiger, and 1-800-Flowers also offer Facebook chatbots.
  • Grocery: Help people pick out the groceries they will need for the upcoming week, order those groceries, and arrange for delivery.
  • Customer service. Help people find answers to questions about things like return policies, store hours, movie times, player statistics, and much more.
  • News: Notify people when topics that are of specific interest to them arise, such as political, financial, health, or entertainment news, or even ski hill reports, Women in Data meetups, or tour dates for a favourite band. Check out the TechCrunch chatbot for tech stories.
  • Finance: Help people manage their money better by recommending saving and investing strategies, planning mortgage and debt payments, and making wiser purchase decisions. Check out the Trading Bot for stocks.
  • Scheduling: Make quick work of booking appointments or scheduling meetings.
  • Friendship: Offer companionship and chatter as does the popular Xiaoice bot in China used by more 20 million people.

For all the things that chatbots can do, they are not infallible. They still cannot provide human level interaction replete with slang, clichés, and cultural references appropriate for the conversation and person with whom they are speaking. They can’t adjust their voice and personality to suit a specific customer, or deescalate an upset customer.

More importantly, chatbots cannot yet deal with unscripted questions and comments. For example, a grocery store might appropriately have a chatbot that can answer questions about store hours, parking, facilities, and return policies, but if it’s not programmed to do so, people who ask ‘What should I make for dinner with these ingredients?’ are certain to be frustrated with the lack of relevant answers. It’s not reasonable for a grocery store to anticipate all possible questions a customer might have, but where exactly does one draw the line?

Chatbots may seem like a fun fad but if you take into consideration how people are currently using messaging apps, chatbots present a huge opportunity. These statistics clearly show that people are moving away from simple consumption platforms, e.g., static websites, and are looking for more immediate, personalized, and interactive experiences.

While building a chatbot requires technical know-how and skilled programming, finding a talented developer is not sufficient to guarantee success.

What problem do you need to solve? You may have decided that chatbots are cool and fun, and you’re keen to build one. But, before taking that first exciting step, it is essential to identify the problem it will solve – assuming you actually have a problem that creating a chatbot would solve. Will your chatbot facilitate retail transactions, build brand engagement, improve customer experiences, or optimize your website? You must start by outlining the genuine need, the genuine problem, your consumer has that is appropriately suited to be addressed by a chatbot.

What voice is suitable for the chatbot? Remember that most chatbots reside within a messaging app, amongst conversations with friends, family, colleagues, and clients. Chatbots need to reflect and suit that environment. Some brands might be suited for terse, abbreviated messages (e.g., a stock market chatbot), while others might require a formal and professional voice (e.g., a legal chatbot), or a casual and personally friendly voice (e.g., a restaurant chatbot). Just as your emails, newsletters, and website have a carefully orchestrated voice, so too must your chatbot. Taking the time to strategize an appropriate voice and brand personality for your chatbot will help to further its success.

What do your consumers expect from you? Naturally, the most important judge of the effectiveness of a chatbot is your consumer. Along with identifying the problem and choosing a suitable voice, the early stages of planning for chatbot success includes conducting research to determine what consumers want, need, and expect from your brand and a potential chatbot. What pain points do consumers regularly express and are they something that a chatbot could solve? And, remembering that chatbots can only function effectively within carefully drawn parameters, it’s important to understand which features are most desired by your consumers, what questions might they ask on a regular basis, and what questions might stretch the chatbots limits.

 “Messaging is where we spend a ton of our time and expect to communicate. It is ridiculous we still have to call most businesses.” 

— Josh Elman, Partner at greylock partners, backing entrepreneurs building market-transforming software companies

Chatbots are certainly not the answer to every problem, but they do offer many benefits to a business willing to undertake the process with careful research and planning. If you’re ready to figure out how a chatbot, or other forms of artificial intelligence, might benefit your company, please get in touch with us! We’d love to help you strategize.