Chatbots have generated a lot of hype over the past few months. Some marketers see them as a passing trend with no real hope of bots ever functioning like humans. Others see them as innovative tools to help brands communicate more effectively without losing sight of the human component. 

What is missing from that discussion though, is the fact that chatbots aren’t an all or nothing marketing choice — to use or not to use — but rather a communication channel, one tool out of many options in the marketing stack. 

And like every other tool, chatbots will only be successful if they are used synergistically as part of the overall marketing mix.

Recapping the Chatbot Story So Far 

Chatbots are automated identities or virtual wizards designed to answer general queries. They simulate human interaction, which can be accomplished either through exchanges in a chat interface such as Facebook Messenger, or through voice-controlled dialogue with virtual personal assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. 

The ecommerce industry was the first to widely adopt chatbots. Whether for sales or customer service, bots solved the challenge of human interaction when shopping online. In this context, bots have functioned successfully as digital store associates, with the dual mission of helping customers find what they need and building customer loyalty by improving their shopping experiences. 

Always Available, Never Grumpy

Chatbots’ potential for enhancing service cannot be denied: Once the infrastructure has been set up, chatbots can be scaled and modified as required. Chatbots are available 24/7, and have real-time access to customer data and company data. They manage customer requests without grumpy responses, queues, fatigue or impatience, and they’re often more cost-effective than personnel-intensive call centers.

What’s more, chat requires no customer training because it is so intuitive. So while websites and apps might deal better with the problems of groups, chatbots excel at solving the problems of individuals.

The Future of Customer Service is Automated 

Gartner predicts that by the year 2020, 85 percent of all customer interactions will no longer require human customer service, and most of the relationships between companies and their customers will be built without human interaction. 

For example, right now in Facebook Messenger alone, 34 thousand chatbots, representing a broad spectrum of companies, currently attend to customer needs. And recent statistics show a growing trend toward even more use of automated customer communication.

Can Chatbots Influence the Customer Journey?

Yet, even though chatbots may represent the future of user communication with companies and brands, can chatbots alone be the total solution? In other words, to what extent can chatbots actually influence customer journeys at their decisive touch points?

A recent Bitkom survey shows that 25 percent of respondents — one in four — can see themselves using chatbots. This finding means that brands can’t yet count on chatbots to appeal to every target group, and should maintain access to their telephone and website touchpoints as well. 

Learning Opportunities

Should Every Company Chat?

But however appealing chatbots may be as solutions for managing exponential growth in customer inquiries, chatbots may never represent a viable solution for certain companies. 

For example, when sensitive documents such as contracts, account information and login data come into play, both users and companies may well resist trusting chats on Facebook or other social platforms. In fact, some companies prohibit chat exchanges via such platforms for information security or compliance reasons. 

Combining People and Technology 

The near-term solution is for companies to view chatbots as a channel that employs automated, behavior-based customer communications — no more and no less. For instance, if a customer wants to make an address change, a chatbot might process the request and communicate a confirmation but let the customer decide whether to receive that confirmation via chat, SMS or email. 

To ensure that kind of flexibility, smart, well-trained employees are required in both marketing and customer service. The goal for companies should be to combine the best of people and technology — timely responses and correct answers — and deliver both with the personal touch.  

The Personal Touch Still Matters

Responding with a truly personal touch is one area where chatbots currently remain at a disadvantage however, no matter how much user information they have collected. One reason is because, when it comes to trustworthy purchase advice, 74 percent of consumers still rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from friends, family and influencers. Human factors like familiarity, emotionality and credibility still win out over chatbot response speed and availability on demand. 

Going forward then, the challenge — and opportunity — for companies will be to combine user information from their chatbots with the customer data generated by their websites, email marketing efforts and other marketing campaigns. Only those organizations that master this integration perfectly will be able to raise customer communications to new levels of personalization and credibility. 

Companies must also remember that ultimately, customers decide for themselves which communication channels they prefer. Putting your customers in the driver’s seat and letting them decide is more important today than ever before. If you believe that your customers are always right, then show it be letting them decide: chatbot or not? 

Learn how you can join our contributor community.