Chatbots: The future of customer service is virtually here

Last month at its annual software developer conference, Facebook brought customer facing artificial intelligence back into the headlines by announcing that it would be opening up its Messenger platform for developers to build ‘chatbots’. These ‘chatbots’, more commonly known as Virtual Assistants, could then be employed by companies to simulate conversations by customer service agents.

The announcement drove significant debate, with a number of commentators pointing to some existing frustrating platforms, and the Microsoft bot which was recently corrupted on Twitter, as indicators that the world isn’t yet ready to rely on artificial intelligence-driven services.

Virtual Assistants: Consumer demand is there

But by and large, customers are already well accustomed to using Virtual Assistants. These services have been available in popular consumer devices for more than five years, with arguably the most famous one of all - Apple’s Siri - receiving as many as one billion requests a week.

And the application of Virtual Assistants across consumer devices has created demand for the same services when interacting with businesses. Indeed, new research by Nuance Communications into consumer preferences and expectations around customer self-service found that 89 per cent of consumers want to engage in conversation with Virtual Assistants to quickly find information instead of searching through web pages or a mobile app on their own. The demand was similar for the phone channel, where the majority of consumers indicated they would prefer to engage with a system that lets them speak naturally when calling in to a business, instead of navigating touch-tone menus.

Artificial intelligence has the potential for massive transformation in customer service. Too frequently, this is discussed solely in terms of job displacement. And while it is true that artificial intelligence can automate many basic tasks and functions, the underlying goal isn’t about eliminating jobs, but transforming the role of human agents to handle the more complex queries to provide consumers with a better experience.

Improving the customer experience

By introducing Virtual Assistants to conduct the repetitive, straightforward tasks, the human agents have greater capacity to focus on emotionally resonant, human-to-human interactions. For instance, while many banks would feel comfortable with a Virtual Assistant confirming if a cheque has cleared, they will probably reserve conversations with a customer who’s been the victim of identity fraud for human agents.

Many companies around the globe, such as Domino’s, ING, Santander, Swedbank, and USAA, are already using virtual assistants to provide fast, easy and human-like customer service.

In the future, Virtual Assistants will become even more sophisticated, with the ability to ‘learn’ the correct answer to any question over time. By building up a vast database, pooled from previous conversations with both humans and virtual agents, Virtual Assistants will be able to mine this information to provide an intelligent, useful response in real-time. In this way, the system will be able to plug gaps in its knowledge to provide a more complete service to the customer.

The future of customer service is virtually here

While Facebook’s chatbots may be making the headlines in 2016, in five years Virtual Assistants will be more omnipresent than they are today. Whether it’s on your phone, TV, in your car or a number of other channels, consumers will talk to machines powered by artificial intelligence and expect their intelligent devices to be an integral part of navigating each day.

Mark Hanson, Director, Design & Development at Nuance Communications