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How smart agents can enhance any business

AI chatbots used to be the preserve of big-name corporations, but that's changing rapidly. A host of powerful new tools and services are allowing small businesses to join the party, and take full advantage of this versatile new technology.

This could start by creating an automated support agent. At their simplest, these offer users a straightforward conversation-based interface to the company knowledge base, helping direct customers to the information they need. 

More complex bots could include logic to decide when to pass on questions to a human agent, ensuring users don't have to start a new support query.

E-commerce agents try to win you new customers, typically by making it easier to find details on products, or providing a faster and more convenient way to place an order.

Other bots can simplify and automate business processes from scheduling meetings to collecting expense details. The best bots go further by integrating with a lengthy list of popular services, websites and platforms, allowing them to do almost anything you like.

Getting started

Bot creation doesn't have to be as complicated, time-consuming or technical as you might think. Chatfuel (opens in new tab) says it allows you to create a full-featured Facebook Messenger bot in seven minutes, with absolutely no coding required. Producing something more useful takes a little longer, but there are several templates to get you up-to-speed quickly. 

Chatfuel's Customer Chat feature allows the bot to integrate with potential customers directly on your homepage. That's not just convenient for them, it means you collect all their contact and profile details with a click, before leading them through a conversation and collecting all their responses. Read more about the possibilities on this Chatfuel blog post (opens in new tab).

Whatever you're trying to do, Chatfuel's integration with RSS, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, Dropbox, Evernote, Gmail and more gives you plenty of options and possibilities. The core service is available for free, or you can opt for a PRO plan which removes the branding, adds some user management tools, and is priced from $30 ($24) a month per bot for up to 1,000 users.

'It's Alive' (opens in new tab) is a likeable coding-free Facebook chatbot creator which can hold conversations with users, broadcast notifications, subscribe them to receive regular updates, and more. It's not as capable as Chatfuel, but it can be cheaper, with a PRO account supporting up to five chatbots and 100,000 messages for $99 (£80) a month.

MEOKAY (opens in new tab) is another popular service for creating chatbots that interact seamlessly with Facebook Messenger and comments. It can push offers to users, take orders, and integrate with Stripe, PayPal, bKash and all the big payment systems.

Run your bots anywhere

Developing chatbots for only one or two platforms keeps life simple, but many users need more flexibility. Even a service as popular as Facebook Messenger won't be the best choice for everyone.

Flow XO (opens in new tab) is a versatile service which allows building bots and agents for Facebook, Telegram, Slack, Twilio and the web. This gives you a wider choice of implementation options, and potentially gets you access to many more users, but the additional platform support doesn't have to add much complexity. Build the bot once and you can use it almost immediately on any or all platforms.

You won't need any coding experience to build your Flow XO bots. Instead you define triggers that tell the bot to initiate a particular task, as well as giving it questions to ask, answers to look for, and actions it can perform. It takes some time to build a bot that will be useful, but the service has some useful shortcuts to help speed up the process. Adding a button captioned "Ask a technical support question", for instance, will immediately tell users what the bot can do and how they can launch that action.

This isn't just about conversations. What's most interesting about Flow XO is its integration with more than 100 apps and services. The bot can begin work when you create a new Google Calendar event, send or receive an email, add a Google or Office 365 contact, post a LinkedIn update, get a new MailChimp advisor, when something important happens in your Twitter account, or you add almost anything in Salesforce. 

Your creation can automate actions in many of these services, too: send emails or tweets; add, update, get and delete a Zendesk ticket; manage Zoho CRM leads, contacts or activities; add a new document to Google Drive; add, update or delete a row in Google Sheets. Browse the full library of integrations on the Flow XO site (opens in new tab) to find out more.

A free plan gives you a risk-free way to experiment with the service, and costs are reasonable. The Standard plan allows simple bots and gives you up to 5,000 user interactions (which could be an entire user session, not just a click or two) for $19 (£15.20) a month.

Botsify (opens in new tab) is an even more powerful service which works with some additional platforms, provides smarter algorithms to help your bot understand more queries, and records failed conversations to give you valuable feedback. Support for human takeover allows a real agent to pick up the conversation if the bot is having trouble.

It's a capable system which provides a well-balanced mix of simplicity and power. A drag and drop template designer helps you get started at speed, and there's no programming required. Smart AI, machine learning, JSON integration and other advanced features have won Botsify big-name customers including Apple and Shazam, yet you can get started with a free plan or support 50,000 users for only $50 (£40) a month.

Roll your own

If your business has complex bot needs and some development resources, you may get better results by producing a bot of your own.

Most messaging and web services will do their best to help you. The Facebook developer site has detailed documentation and some handy sample bots to help you understand how the system works. The 'Getting Started' guide suggests you can build your first bot in around ten minutes, and that's about right. It won't do very much, of course, but you can work on the project and improve it over time.

The big-name providers have their own development systems. Microsoft's Azure Bot Service (opens in new tab) and Amazon Lex (opens in new tab) allow you to include AI technologies from Cortana and Alexa within your own projects.

But if you're looking for something simpler, at least initially, take a look at the popular open-source toolkit Botkit (opens in new tab). Your creations can work with Facebook, Slack, Twilio, Cisco Spark and more, and there's community support from other developers to help you get started.