Silicon Valley is a fickle place.

The ebb and flow tends to be predicated on the flavor of the month, which is generally decreed by one of a handful of “trendsetter brands,” be it Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc.

Recently, we saw Facebook declare that the next digital frontier would center on AI-powered chat bots and their inevitable rise, driven in no small part by the company’s own expansion into the bot space via its Messenger platform.

The news elicited no shortage of attention from the media and for good reason. Certainly, chat bots deliver a ton of genuinely innovative functionality, and they reflect our increasing preference for self-service customer service.

The Bot Phenomenon

Forrester reports that 70 percent of customers prefer sourcing information from a company website rather than using phone or email. Meanwhile on the business side, live-agent calls average anywhere from $6 to $12 per call, while an interactive voice response (IVR) or interactive text response (ITR) interaction can be as cheap as 25 cents.

Looking at the bot customer experience potential (I must confess, I’m in geek-out heaven when it comes to these topics), I’ve been getting a lot of questions on this:

Most likely, the truth lies somewhere in the middle but it is certainly no fad.

Understanding Chat Bot Mania

First, I think it’s worth exploring the origins of chat bots and why they seem to have piqued the industry’s interest recently. After all, the technologies at the core of Facebook’s bots, as well as others, aren’t particularly new — we’ve had them on our phones for years.

And while it’s true these technologies are getting better, that fact alone doesn’t justify the limelight AI-powered chat bots currently enjoy.

Instead, Facebook’s push into chat bots has a lot more to do with getting users to interact with Messenger in new ways and, critically, for longer periods of time. Similar to messaging apps like WeChat, Facebook is exploring new functionality unrelated to messaging, which includes features like QR scanning, mobile payments and, yes, bots.

From a customer experience standpoint, I can appreciate the value of a chat bot.

In situations where a customer would be interacting with a human operator via a live chat prompt, a bot can skillfully handle much of that workload at a fraction of the cost and likely with greater speed and accuracy — we’ve found that with the self-service customer experience technology we’ve been using for a while now.

However, that still has not eliminated the need for the human touch in the customer journey at certain points.

Seamless, Contextualized CX

Customer service bots like the ones Facebook is currently hyping have been available on some messaging platforms like WeChat for some time but they’ve made minimal headway in the space.

Purely based on the technology, that might seem surprising but the truth comes down to the way customers want to be served information.

The best customer experience is one continuous, seamless journey, where the conversation is contextualized and can take place across all voice and digital channels. The limitations in something like a chat bot in Facebook’s Messenger platform challenge the natural tendencies of how humans operate—at least in the current time.

That So-Called Robot Uprising

Another point of conversation I’ve seen is around the potential for bots to replace humans as customer service agents.

And while discussion around technology replacing humans continues to be a point of anxiety for some, you can also look at this problem differently. The technology we create is intended to make humans more effective, more valuable.

Bots can handle many of the basic customer experience tasks, but certainly not all. When journey and life events become more complex the complementary nature of AI and human engagement still guarantees exceptional relationships.

For the CX industry, it’s fair to say that bots offer a compelling value proposition in that they promise to streamline contact center tasks and make human operators more efficient and really more valuable.

It’s critical though that they be designed into the overall customer journey rather than siloed into a separate ecosystem. For chat bots to be a viable CX tool going forward, organizations must become adapt at managing them within the context of an omnichannel user experience.

Will chat bots replace apps, or even human beings? I don’t think so — not so soon. In life, as in customer experience, long-term happiness is formed through human-to-human relationships.

Title image "Sale" (CC BY 2.0) by Jon_Callow_Images