This guest post is written by Stephan Delbos, Editor & Content Manager at Brand Embassy.
The hype surrounding Facebook’s chatbot announcement made it seem like some people were envisioning a Transformers-like takeover of customer service by bots. The introduction of chatbots into digital customer service is great because bots are fast and very efficient. But humans still have a huge role to play in customer service and always will. It might be less dramatic than a chatbot coup d’état, but the future of customer service lies in the balance between automation and human connections. Knowing the undeniable advantages of chatbots and making use of them, while also giving human agents the freedom to connect with customers will be the key to providing responsive, personalized service that delights customers and inspires their loyalty.
Many commentators look back on pre-internet customer service as the good old days, with real people helping people and developing long-term relationships. The internet, the narrative goes, put up a wall between brands and customers, making digital customer service potentially faster, but far less personal. The solution to that conundrum certainly isn’t to stop using technology — chatbots and digital customer care can be key differentiators, because they allow brands to streamline and simplify customer service at scale.
But we’ve reached a tipping point, when everyone is starting to realize the importance of customer experience, and that brands need to step out from behind that digital wall. 83% of U.S. consumers prefer dealing with human beings over digital channels to solve customer services issues, according to new research from Accenture. It’s not that technology is suddenly useless. On the contrary, chatbots and advanced customer service technology are more important than ever before. In fact, the smartest brands will actually use automation to put the human back into the customer service equation.
The beginning of a beautiful friendship
We love technology and we’re big fans of innovation. Anything that could possibly help brands serve their customers better sounds fantastic to us. But technology alone can’t provide excellent customer service, because customers want personalized human connections. That’s why 52% of consumers have switched brands in the past year due to poor customer service, which includes brands that made it difficult to get in touch with a human customer service agent. Bots are invaluable, especially when customers also have the opportunity to speak with an empathetic, responsive human.
Think of the popular stories you’ve heard about great customer service, from Zappos to Netflix or Hilton. It’s hard to imagine these being orchestrated by chatbots alone. But it’s also hard to imagine this extraordinary level of customer service being possible if agents didn’t have advanced technology at their fingertips.
The advantages of automation in customer service are too large to ignore. We have the technology, so why not use it? The key is knowing when to use automation and when to rely on humans. Doing so requires a clear-eyed consideration of what humans do best, and what should be left up to bots.
What should be automated?
Great customer service in the 21st century just isn’t possible without technology. Chatbots have all the advantages of computers: they’re fast and they’re rational. In the future, contact centers will take advantage of all that chatbots have to offer, but will only rely on them to do the things they’re best at, the 1st-level contacts for repetitive questions and issues that are easy to solve. There are exciting opportunities for brands who know how to make automation work for them.
As a basic bottom line, all brands should offer proactive live chat. Automated chatbots will seek out customers browsing the website and contact them based on what they are looking at. This kind of proactivity has positive effects on sales and customer satisfaction, but is often too much of a burden for human agents to take on, especially when there are many customers and a small team. Bots can free agents to do more important things.
Intelligent ticket routing is another vital feature of automated customer service. Intelligent routing, particularly in digital customer service where expectations for quick response and personalization are high, is a great way to utilize the best of both worlds. Brands have automation to select the best possible customer service agent, and a human touch to personalize the experience. It’s a question of using technology to lead customers to human agents if and when they need it.
What needs a human touch?
In the future, human agents will focus on complex issues, and will use their emotional intelligence and instinct whenever they can. Essentially, technology will take care of the technical stuff, freeing up human agents to do what they do best. This will be a systematic change in the way we think about and execute digital customer service.
To cultivate the human touch in digital customer service, brands have to do three things:
- Recognize the importance of empathy
- Make personal connections
- Provide repeat contact points
83% of American customers who have switched brands say that better live or in-person customer service would have inspired them to stay. Customer service should be less about “satisfying” customers and more about moving them smoothly through the service experience time after time. But even earlier, before making a sale, chatbots can get in touch with the customer and guide them along. Bots take care of the easily solvable problems, leading customers to qualified agents who can then develop and sustain relationships with customers over time, which means increased loyalty and distinguishing customer experience.
It’s time we brought humans back into customer service, but that doesn’t mean abandoning technology. Brands that achieve a balance between automation and human connections will succeed by utilizing the advantages of technology without neglecting age-old human contact.
About the Author
This guest post is written by Jeff Lawson, CEO and cofounder of Twilio.
It’s hard to make a right turn down San Francisco’s crowded streets these days without running into a story about bots, conversational commerce, or conversational commerce bots. Bots have reached kale levels of hype. But amidst the noise, there’s something real going on here — we just have to decipher it.
You may have heard of conversational commerce — it’s a catchall term for a future of technology driven by messaging (and voice) interactions that transcend current communications modalities. It’s a convenient moniker but also confusing because there isn’t one trend to follow. Rather, it’s several distinct trends that overlap to varying degrees. Disecting this “mega-trend” into its underlying trends gives us a look at where technology may be taking us.
I count five different trends converging on conversational commerce:
1. Advanced notifications
3. Chat in apps
4. Apps in chat
5. Humans chatting with each other
So, let’s dig in and take a closer look:
1. Advanced notifications
We’re all accustomed to receiving timely alerts via SMS, push, or even email in the course of our interactions with companies and apps. Whether it’s your car arriving, a delivery confirmation, or a message that your flight is delayed, proactive notifications are a simple and effective means of improving our interactions with companies.
But these notifications are getting more and more interesting. Notifications can include multimedia, maps, directions, contacts, boarding passes, and more. And while the reality of this isn’t exactly conversational, every notification should be an invitation to a conversation. So what happens when the consumer replies to these notifications?
Enter the bot craze.
Bot interfaces have long captured the imagination of developers and geeks, and we’re now seeing folks building bots for all sorts of things. Interestingly enough, bots have been around for more than 50 years, since early Eliza demos, but the growth of messaging, the explosion of machine learning successes, the emergence of huge data sets, and the rise of mobile have created a perfect storm for Eliza to grow up. There’s a wide variety of ways bots may come to do our bidding:
Command line bots: For those of us who love Unix, these bots put a command shell in everything. In Slack, for example, bots have been built for fetching Digg (content), ordering an Uber (transportation), pulling data from Google Analytics (data), and more. Handy? Sure! Why flip over to Terminal when a chat app is already open. But sadly, history does seem to indicate that GUIs provide affordances that command lines generally lack, and that’s a meaningful barrier to adoption for the muggles. I suspect these bots will be as widespread as sed, awk, and grep among mainstream users.
Chatbots: Chatbots are essentially a two-way conversation with a computer — the Turing test in action. Chatbots have received a ton of attention, both positive and negative, largely due to strides in deep learning. In business, the vision is that chatbots enable a company to message one-on-one with customers without exploding human costs.
For example, one use case we’re seeing is companies using chatbots to scale customer support situations. Companies such as Msg.ai, Presence.ai, and PullString allow companies to train AI chatbots with the loving touch of an expert operator to understand the context of questions and converse on-brand. If the consumer stumps the bot, it will interface with a support system like Zendesk or Talkdesk. The conversation can then be passed off to a human when deeper intelligence is required.
Personal assistants: These are bots that can accomplish tasks for a person — answer questions and respond to commands — the promise of HAL-like intelligence. Thanks to machine learning and natural language processing and understanding, these bots know your preferences, integrate with everything, and can act on your behalf — essentially replacing human work. In the consumer world, we’ve already seen some success with personal assistants through Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Voice Search. This model is powerful, and represents a massive battleground. If consumers come to prefer this mode of expressing purchase intent, then the winner will be the next Google.
These products are capturing our imagination — and the demos are always killer. But after the novelty wears off, will the technology prove truly useful or a parlor trick? Continued advances in machine learning are just about guaranteed, and if we couple that with APIs everywhere to interconnect services, we could very well deliver on the sci-fi promise of intelligent assistants. The big question is, if the tech industry fulfills that vision, will consumers actually take to it.
Or will we revert back to old habits after one too many “I’m sorry Dave, I can’t get tickets to the Warriors game tomorrow.”
In short, bots are built to augment and scale human interactions. So what happens when these interactions occur in a native app?
3. Chat in apps
Chat in apps provide a conversational functionality embedded within apps. The promise here is that the communications you have from within an app are smarter and more valuable because they inherently contain the context of the information in the application you’re using. So if you’re in the Uber app and you call your driver, the driver already knows your name, where you are, and what you’re calling about (“I’m outside!”) — which is a huge improvement over calling a taxi dispatcher.
However, we use messaging differently when it’s embedded in an app than when we use dedicated messaging apps (SMS, Messenger). When chat exists in an app, the only entity a consumer is chatting with in the app is the company. So it will feel less like the long-lived conversational messaging experience we’re used to in our personal messaging conversations. Instead, it will be more transactional: “I need new pillows (Hilton)”, “I’m looking for a camera (Best Buy)”, or “I’m at the corner of 2nd and Harrison (Uber)”. Because apps generally know who you are, the context here is killer — if you have the app installed.
Which brings us to apps in chat — the vision of conversational commerce that’s getting the most attention at this point …
4. Apps in chat
This is all about bringing application functionality into chat, as has been done in China with WeChat. In this model, chat is an identity model and discovery vehicle for connecting people and businesses, with a flexible in-chat interface that can be programmed like an app to enable a wide variety of use cases. It’s not the chat itself that’s powerful, but the time-ordered view of our interactions.
Coupled with discovery, apps in chat have largely replaced (or really, prevented) the predominant role of mobile apps in China as they exist in the West. This model has achieved near complete penetration of the market in China, which is astounding. Will the same thing happen in markets where there’s an entrenched app-store model? There may be some use cases, but I suspect it’s unwise to assume things will unfold worldwide the way they have in China.
5. People chatting
And the last category of messaging is just plain old humans conversing with each other. I believe this is the most important near-term opportunity because it’s truly the basis for human communication. At the end of the day, humans want to communicate with businesses the same way they communicate with other humans. This is what conversational commerce promises –the end of phone trees, account numbers, and security questions and the beginning of real, natural conversations, regardless of who you’re communicating with.
Conversational commerce is a thing, and it comprises these five trends in varying degrees. Which ones hold the truth will be determined by developers in coming years with ample trial and error. The biggest key, though, is the shift to humanizing our communications with businesses. These conversations may take place via a text message or voice, with a bot or a human, within a native app or within a dedicated messaging app — but at the end of the day, you’re still communicating with businesses like you’d communicate with anyone else. As the reality of “human afterall” becomes possible, companies that excel at conversation will drive higher customer satisfaction, engagement, and retention.
About the Author
Jeff Lawson is CEO and cofounder of Twilio.