Artificial intelligence bots on computer screens.
Rather than replacing customer service agents, chat bots will allow humans to focus on more important tasks. PHOTO: Gerd Altmann

To minimize wait times at call centers, many companies have developed self-care websites designed to help customers save time by solving some problems themselves — no human contacted required. 

Mobile apps have also made customer experiences more efficient for everything from banking to ordering takeout food. Again, no human needed there either.

But there’s a new popular kid in customer experience.

Introducing the Chatbot

If you’ve interacted with Apple’s Siri, you’ve had a discussion with a speech-based bot.

If you're not familiar with chatbots, they are software programs that use a messaging interface to help people with a myriad of tasks, in a lot of cases from their mobile phones.

If you're keeping score, yes, chatbots save millions of dollars in save millions of dollars in labor costs too. Customer service representative roles have an automation potential of 29 percent, so they would potentially eliminate approximately 2.4 million jobs. Proponents of chatbots argue they are not replacing humans, but alleviating people's busy workloads.

Matt Marcus, vice president, executive creative director at R/GA, a design communications agency, who created Rose, a chatbot for The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel, offers this explanation for why chatbots won't eliminate jobs:

“In a call center environment, we’re seeing a lot of first-line agent roles can be better served by chatbots. Can you self-service your way through with very easy menial tasks? Those are usually things we’d rather not have humans engage on, because they’re just menial. Can we leverage humans for more advanced and complex tasks or issues that humans may have?”

If chatbots save people time waiting to speak to an agent and companies save labor costs, what’s not to love?

The Pitfalls of Chatbots

Last year, Facebook had issues with its chatbots creating their own rogue language.

This past July, Forbes contributor, Tony Bradley wrote that Facebook ceased its artificial intelligence (AI) engine (chatbot) after developers discovered that it had created its own unique language, which no normal human would understand. Researchers at the Facebook AI Research Lab (FAIR) found that the chatbots had deviated from the human-created language rules and were communicating in a new language developed without human input.

But, in reality, the Facebook chatbot experiment was routine. In early July, Fastco Design reported on Facebook’s attempt to “develop a generative adversarial network” to develop negotiation software.

FAIR blog post explained the bots, Alice and Bob, were designed to show it is, “possible for dialog agents with differing goals to engage in start-to-finish negotiations with other bots or people while arriving at common decisions or outcomes.”

Facebook did, in fact, shut down the conversation, but not because it feared the AI program was getting into nefarious activity. Facebook programmers made an error by not incentivizing the chatbots to communicate in a way English-speaking humans can understand.

Although companies are still contemplating or are now embracing chatbots, most AI-powered platforms are failing worldwide. Some early adopters have dropped chatbots altogether, citing disappointing results.

"Most chatbots fail because companies don't clearly define their purpose. The scope that companies set for their chatbots tends to be broad and generic," says Xiaofeng Wang, senior analyst with market research firm Forrester.

Google Trends data shows that people in China, Singapore and Hong Kong have the most interest in chatbots, with Canada and the U.S. much farther down the list at 27th and 29th positions, respectively.

Singapore's POSB Bank launched a chatbot to handle general inquiries about its products and services. "Tactics like being the first bank in the region to launch a chatbot may generate some brand and PR value, but all too often, firms fail to clearly define their chatbot's purpose and communicate it to users," Wang added.

Where have chatbots shined in recent times?

Business Wins With Chatbots

On the upside, at another Singapore bank, OCBC Bank’s chatbot, which focused on generating home loan leads, helped OCBC Bank close nearly S$10 million in new loans in one quarter.

“It’s crucial to find the key focus of a chatbot. You cannot try to do everything with one chatbot,” said Altona Widjaja, vice president, Fintech and innovation Group, ODBC Bank. 

There are a number of platforms like Facebook Messenger, Kik, WeChat, Slack and more with new ones springing up every day, making it easierto deploy these chatbots across channels like SMS (texting), Facebook and Alexa.

Research firm Gartner projects that less than 15 percent of customer interactions will be handled by a human by 2020, and chatbots are also expected to be the No. 1 consumer applications of AI over the next four years, according to TechEmergence, a market research firm that focuses on business applications of artificial intelligence.

“We are seeing a number of experiments with chatbots both in marketing and in a business context that is helping us understand how to design them to drive real business value. We’re seeing an explosion in interest around chatbots. We’re at the tail end of the early-adopter phase here, where people are interested in chatbots who have been using them are starting to move into the mainstream,” said R/GA’s Marcus.

Where does Marcus see chatbots’ in the future of customer experience?

“We’re going to see a lot of interaction between bots. You’ll be able to ask Alexa to talk to Rose at The Cosmopolitan and see if there’s a room available this weekend. Alexa will then bring Rose through that conversation. We expect those kinds of things will happen as the bot explosion proliferates.”

You can learn more about the implementation and use of a chatbot at CMSWire's Digital Customer Experience event, DX Summit Conference, where representatives from R/GA and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas will feature their case study of Rose.