Are chatbots just another fad?

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In April 2016, Facebook launched an open version of Messenger which invited developers to create artificial intelligence chatbots that would interact with Facebook users. The excitement that followed was immediate, and by June 2016, 11,000 bots had been made available.

Chatbots were predicted to change the way consumers and brands interacted. Interactions like calling a company’s customer service line and punching in a number to select a menu option, or locating a confirmation email and printing the confirmation code, were going to be replaced by the help of brand chatbots. All of our online purchases, dinner reservations, trip details, etc. were going to be handled and taken care of all within our messaging apps.

The most exciting part of all this was that chatbots were going to understand the nuances in human language, i.e., context, tonality, and cultural references, and be able to respond accurately, in kind, to customers. However exciting this may have seemed, it was only going to work if these chatbots could properly understand you, which has always been hit or miss.

Straight away, the bots appeared to be a disappointment, with many early adopters comparing the bots’ intelligence with that of the Microsoft Office wizard from the 90’s. Now, as we reach the middle of 2017, we still use emails, phone calls, and mobile apps to interact with brands. In fact, few people have ever tried to use a chatbot, and even fewer companies have spent the time and money to deploy them.

According to a recent Forrester Research executive survey, just 4% of companies have deployed chatbots, but 31% are testing them or plan to roll them out. The percentage of companies using human-manned chat services is still higher.

All of these facts and negative opinions have many people wondering, are there any chatbots that users have actually found useful? And if not, is this evidence that chatbots are nothing more than a fad, ala Facebook’s “poke feature” or Pokemon Go? Let’s find out by first understanding what exactly it is that, up until now, has made chatbots so disappointing.

What are chatbots missing?

There is one traditional argument against chatbots that everyone can seem to agree on and that is that their interactions with clients can seem canned or automated, rather than human-like. Early adopters claim chatbots have the same variety of conversational skills as automated call menus. Users can ask very general questions to a chatbot to get a very standard, short response.

Ted Carmichael’s experience provides a perfect example of a chatbot lacking language capabilities. He tried to buy a pair of pants using the retail shop, H&M’s, chatbot.

Two messages into the conversation with the H&M chatbot and Ted’s already made an error. He has hastily written “Women’s” instead of “Men’s” when asked to choose between a type of clothing. Ted attempts to backpedal to correct this mistake, but the chatbot isn’t equipped to handle any responses other than the ones it has presented Ted.

The chatbot offers back the same canned response to Ted’s numerous attempts at crafting the magical message that will make the chatbot understand that he wants to go back. Eventually, Ted cuts his losses and moves on to try his luck with a chatbot from a different company.

While this mistake was the consumer’s fault, customers change their minds all the time and wanting to go back or choose a different item is part and parcel of the customer service industry. If chatbots are going to take over as an alternative to emailing and calling brands, they’ll need to be able to help consumers through the whole buyer journey, mistakes and all.

Have any useful chatbots been deployed?

Chatbots that have been designed to be a bit less ambitious can operate successfully thanks to a simple set of actions, narrowing the possible variations in commands and responses.

One of these chatbots is the Shopify Facebook Messenger bot. This bot will collect all the web locations of items that you’d normally bookmark and place them together in one list inside your Facebook Messenger.

Now, users can forget about saving links and bookmarking pages. Their shopping wish list will be waiting for them inside Facebook Messenger. Also, for items that are out-of-stock, users can save those pages too, and the Shopify bot will notify the user when the product is in stock again. It’s a nifty app, and it works because it depends on simple Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Machine Learning (ML) technologies. 

Because of the lack of advancement, thus far, in NLP and ML technologies, chatbots are only able to handle basic interactions for now. These technologies help chatbots recognize the many nuances in human conversation and respond in kind. This technology is still very much in its infancy, which is why chatbots currently seem like a feature from the 90’s. Tech companies Google, IBM, and Amazon, are making substantial investments to advance the functionality of AI chatbots.

While these advancements progress slowly and chatbots are resigned to a mere level of functionality, this level of functionality is still not giving users any reason to choose to interact with a chatbot over emailing, calling, or mobile apps. But while the first year with AI bots was disappointing, tech experts are not ready to dismiss chatbots just yet.

Facebook’s Messenger app is growing at a faster rate than the Facebook platform itself. Messaging apps continue to be where people spend the most time when on their phones, which leaves a lot of potential for chatbots, especially to infiltrate the e-commerce markets. For the F8 conference in 2017, chatbots and e-commerce were still a big part of Facebook’s conversation. Currently, Messenger has added a Discover tab to make it easier to locate particular bots.

With chatbots in messaging apps, brands could learn more about their customers’ preferences and build user engagement. Needless to say, the desire for chatbots in the market hasn’t gone anywhere.

So what do we do while we wait for chatbots to advance?

The technology isn’t quite there yet, so until then, the best option for brands to use chatbots successfully is to offer a human-bot hybrid. Hybrids incorporate both chatbots and customer support from an actual representative in one experience. Chatbots engage with customers fielding the easy questions, and then at a certain stage the bot directs the consumer to a support person who can finalize the process and answer detailed questions. This way, if the customer gets stuck in a confusing conversation with a chatbot, the support person is just moments away from intervening to make sure the process goes smoothly.

Ted Carmichael, who was mentioned earlier having a bad experience with an H&M bot, found success when working with Burberry’s bot. He requested the bot show the trousers they had in stock, but when it came to asking specifics, like pant leg length or type of fabric, a customer support person took over to make sure all of Ted’s questions were answered adequately.

In conclusion, they’re not a fad — not yet

So, chatbots may not have had the impact that we eagerly anticipated just yet, but this doesn’t mean that they won’t. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and developers will have to go a few rounds with chatbots before they reach their full potential in becoming our own personal AI assistants. Let’s just hope they reach their full potential sooner rather than later, before another advancement in technology steers us in another direction.

Albizu Garcia is the CEO and cofounder of Gain, a marketing technology company .

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