Don’t look now, but that company rep you thought you were chatting with while shopping online may not have been a live person at all. It may very well have been a chatbot — a computer program designed to mimic human conversation.

My how times have changed. Most people I know hate chatting with “automated people” via telephone. Quite frankly, when the phone rings and I figure out that the party that I’m speaking with is not a live human being, I hang up.

Phone Bots Bad, Online Bots Good?

Yet the same doesn’t seem to hold true in the online world. If chatbots are able to provide truly useful information, people are increasingly willing to interact with them. Why is that? Why is it that something that’s abhorrent in the phone world is growing in popularity in the online world? A number of factors may be in play here.

First off, because there is no voice for you to hear online, you have no idea — at least for the first few seconds — whether you’re chatting with a live human being or a chatbot. And companies are freely mixing the two. Perhaps a live person is on duty during business hours and the chatbot takes over after hours, on weekends and over the holidays.

Here’s how the interaction typically develops: You spend more than a couple of minutes on a website and all of a sudden, a pop-up window appears asking whether or not you need any help. You can respond by ignoring or closing the window, or you can take advantage of the opportunity.

Let’s make this a bit more real in order to fully understand just how sophisticated chatbots have become — and how useful they can be to today’s businesses. Say you’re shopping for a new car. Let’s say it’s a fully electric plug-in vehicle — perhaps the first one you’ve seriously considered buying. But you have lots of questions, such as these:

  • What is the car’s range?
  • How often do I have to plug it in?
  • What happens if there isn’t a charging station nearby?
  • Are there tax advantages to buying an electric vehicle?
  • What happens if I run out of energy while I’m out of range?

Sure, a live human being could walk you through all of these questions. But so could a well-designed chatbot. It just comes down to anticipating the questions that website visitors are going to have and programming the chatbot to provide the appropriate responses.

Related Article: Google Duplex's Conversational AI Shows a Path to Better Customer Service

Chatbots Can Drum Up Business Far and Wide

Now that doesn’t mean that every business should go out and invest in a chatbot tomorrow. But it does mean for the right business and the right business situation, a chatbot might indeed be the way to go. For starters, a chatbot could add potential business to your pipeline by bringing prospective customers that much closer to being ready to buy, or at least engaging them with your sales organization. Best of all, that prodding could be taking place after business hours, over the weekend, or on holidays when your business might normally be closed.

Chatbots also allow you to interact with potential customers in other time zones and geographies. That could enable a company based in the Asia-Pacific, region, for example, to interact in real time with potential customers in North America.

So where does chatbot technology fit in your corporate technology stack? Well, since it would need to be intimately integrated with your company’s website, it would most likely be bolted on to your company’s content management system (CMS).

What do the experts who are out there configuring and installing CMS platforms think about the whole chatbot phenomenon? I consulted with a few of them in preparation for writing this article. Here’s what they had to say.

Rob Bean, Brant Cline, Vince Mayfield, Bruce Williams
From left to right: Rob Bean, Brant Cline, Vince Mayfield, Bruce Williams

“We’ve been working with chatbot technology quite a bit,” said Rob Bean, partner and marketing strategist of Refactored Media in Denver, Colo. He explained the technology as, “trying to create a human interaction that feels very natural, but clearly you’re talking with some piece of artificial intelligence.”

Bruce Williams, senior director of development department at Cleveland, Ohio-based Thunder:tech, views chatbots as part of the growing trend towards artificial intelligence. “We’re talking about AI like the robot is at the table,” he commented. “Well, you know what, the robot and the lawyer and the marketer — that’s who’s at the table now. Good, bad, or indifferent — that is the reality.”

Learning Opportunities

So, when is it appropriate to consider using a chatbot? When you have a prospective customer in the very early stages of looking at your product or technology, but they’re not far enough along to chat with sales. 

“Think about when you’re at a trade show and someone’s trying to get your email address,” explained Bean. “You are like ‘whoa.’ You are initially put off. Who wants to talk to a salesperson until you’re really ready to talk to them.” 

Bean continued, “The key is to avoid opening with overused lines such as ‘Hey, can I help you?’ Rather, you could have the chatbot entice the website visitor by asking, ‘Do you know much about this topic?’ They respond yes or no, and the chatbot guides them to watch an overview video to learn a little bit more, and then the conversation branches out in a very natural way. People know that they are interacting with a bot at that point, but you offset that by giving them the opportunity to engage with a real person at some point.”

What to Consider When Introducing a Chatbot

Brant Cline, senior director of strategic solutions at Denver, Colo.-based BlueModus, views chatbots as just another in the growing list of technologies that may help clients in the long run. “I think that all of these things have a lot of potential,” he commented. “I always, when I talk to clients, temper their excitement a little bit because, for instance, a chatbot is only as good as the content and taxonomy that supports it.”

Thunder::tech’s Williams kept returning to the importance of keeping live people involved in the process. “I think we overlook the human element in every technology we roll out,” cautioned Williams. “It looks so easy, it’s so beautiful, but there are still people behind it. That’s what important to remember.”

Refactored Media’s Bean saw very specific instances where a chatbot might just what the doctor ordered. “As social a people as we are,” added Bean, “if you put a salesperson online, they don’t know how to communicate via chat. Their daughter might know how to do it, but they certainly don’t know how to do it. So that’s where we’re finding that blending some AI for chatbots with human interaction is actually very compelling.” 

“These are no substitutes for a well built, well architected website with good content and good content structures,” concluded Blue Modus’ Cline. “But they can certainly be enablers. Different people want to drive content different ways, so the easier that we make it for people to get to the content they need sooner, then all the better.” 

Perhaps Vince Mayfield of Bit-Wizards of Fort Walton Beach, Fla. summed it up best. "Tools such as chatbots give businesses the ability, with some help, to be able to do things that they might otherwise might not have been able to accomplish with a smaller staff," he said. “But they are just now realizing, especially in the mid-market, what those capabilities are and that they need to embrace them. That level of maturity isn’t just in the marketing department. It’s literally across the business. You have to have it in IT, and you’ve got to have it in Finance, and you have to have it at the executive level in order to be successful.”

fa-solid fa-hand-paper Learn how you can join our contributor community.