robot graffiti
PHOTO: 수안 최

I am currently yelling in frustration at the chatbot on the website I am visiting, and it doesn’t seem to care. While I recognize that chatbots and conversation-driven marketing and sales platforms can be highly beneficial for B2B sales, they are a major source of frustration for the average B2C customer experience — because chatbots cannot establish relationships, display empathy, or recognize when the hard sell is turning visitors off.

In B2C sales, the single most important capability of a chatbot is to recognize when it's time to retreat, or know that it is time to get a human involved in a conversation. Sadly, the technology is not there yet.

“You must understand where humans sit in this process because humans are great problem solvers. Being able to have a human step into a conversation and take it over, make some suggestions, or give some approvals, and then step out again is a key aspect of your conversational interface.” Paul Sweeney, Webio

Building a Better Bot

I spend my days educating press and analysts about general AI concepts and the importance of intelligent conversations in the B2C and B2B worlds. If I were a representative of a business looking to purchase a conversation-driven platform with modern messaging technology to help drive sales, marketing and customer support, I would be very interested in a companies like Intercom or Drift. While their approaches vary, these companies emphasize individual, intelligent conversations and offer intelligent bots that qualify customers, respond to common FAQs, set meetings with sales representatives, send targeted messages, publish help content, and more in real time and to scale. 

In B2B sales these capabilities are critically important in reducing time-to-engagement and increasing customer satisfaction. If only chatbots were this good at their job in the B2C arena.

But right now, as I yell at the chatbot on the website, I am not a representative of a business looking to purchase a conversation-driven platform with modern messaging bots to help drive sales, marketing and customer support. I am a middle-aged woman looking to purchase a vacuum cleaner. Think hunter and gatherer mentality. If I was a middle-aged man with a caveman hunter mentality — see it, kill it, conquer it, drag it home — I would welcome a quick conversation with a chatbot about a product or service I was interested in. The bot could meet me on the communication platform I desired, and answer any questions I might have immediately, regardless of the hour or my time zone.

That is not me. I am a gatherer. I enjoy the journey. I enjoy the research. I spend time examining products and services: gathering information, comparing and contrasting data points, reading independent reviews, etc.  I cannot stand it when I land on a web page and a bot pops up in a matter of seconds to welcome me and ask if I have any questions. I immediately hit the ‘X’ to make it go away. 

I have been on the page for a nanosecond. I do not have any questions yet. I am shopping online instead of at a store, because I do not want to be hassled.

Related Article: 4 Questions to Ask Before You Send in the Chatbots

When Online Replicates the Worst of Offline 

My husband and I recently went shopping for a sofa together at Art Van near Chicago. As we approached the entrance, we could see two salespeople ready and waiting for us. I cringed. My husband turned to me and said, “Are we really going to have to do this?” 

A greeter is one thing. Feeling accosted is another. At Art Van, you are greeted, and then you must listen to the layout of the store, the specials, etc. Then they want to know why you are there. As you begin to walk away and disengage, they chase you to finish their pitch. They finally give up. But wait, two seconds later you are approached by a different sales person who wants to drag you through the same process. 

Where is my fly swatter when I need it? (This is why I, and many introverts, relish online shopping.) I just want to sit on a dozen sofas and narrow my selection down to a few that are comfortable and come in a desirable color. Now I am ready to speak with a salesperson. I want to learn about durability, the seat coils, cushion material, warranties, delivery availability, etc. Where is the salesperson now? They are nowhere to be found. Where did they go? Does anyone work here?

Take this experience to a website like that of a large home and garden center, wholesale warehouse or home goods store, because I am still looking to purchase a vacuum cleaner. I open the main page of the website, and I am almost immediately greeted by a bot. If I remain on the page for a few minutes, taking the time to actually read the page, the bot pops up again. It is trying to be helpful, but it is blocking the content I am trying to read. I change pages. Dang, another bot. Where is my fly swatter? 

I feel like I am back in Art Van. After I have immediately shut down the bot on repeated occasions, it should know it's time to retreat. The hard sell is turning me off and pushing me towards a competitor’s website.

Related Article: Does Your Company Need a Chatbot?

A Good Chatbot Is Hard to Find

A different scenario: I have spent a great deal of time researching various products on your website. I have questions now. I ask a question the bot cannot answer. I ask it three different ways. It is still not providing me with the answer I want, and I am becoming increasingly frustrated. The chatbot doesn't know that: what it knows is that I have asked it three questions, so it thinks I am happily engaged. It will not go away again. 

I search for the 'Contact Us' button for a live person in customer service. And here comes the bot again, this time with a welcome message and more of the "how can I help you?" The bot should have recognized that it was not finding me the answers I was seeking, and it should have connected me directly with a customer service representative. I am now really frustrated. I dial the customer service number myself. I am greeted with something like, “We are experiencing extremely long wait times. Expect to be on hold for 14 minutes.”

<SIGH> I give up.