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Improving customer interactions: Leave it to the bots

(Image credit: Image Credit: IAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock)

Customer trust is a lot like money: It’s difficult to gain but incredibly easy to lose. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Just ask Microsoft, which made the mistake of inviting the internet to raise an impressionable young bot. Its Tay, which debuted in March 2016, was meant to be Microsoft’s experiment in “conversational understanding.” But rather than give it grammar lessons, users spammed it with hateful, discriminatory messages. Although Tay was corrupted by its own users, consumers’ trust in Microsoft won’t soon be earned back.

Given Tay’s failure, is it even worth companies’ while to create consumer-facing chatbots? Well, dozens of companies — from Sephora to Taco Bell to Sony Pictures — think so. They’ve gleaned four benefits by building bots that customers trust:

1. Ramped-up customer rapport. Do you spill your secrets — or, more aptly, your credit card numbers — to someone you just met online? Of course you don’t, and your customers don’t, either.

So how best to help customers trust your brand without breaking the bank? You can’t dedicate a service rep to every single account, and your company blog probably isn’t your customers’ favorite bedtime read. 

Chatbots offer an easy, cost-effective answer. They facilitate dialogue and can be used to push helpful content like infographics or well-timed coupons to interested customers. Connecting customers to helpful, worthwhile content is a proven way to drive acquisition.

Of course, the best way to build trust is often just to be there, at the right time, with the right answer to the customer’s question. This is where chatbots shine. In partnership with chatbot agency Yalo, Mexican global airline Aeromexico recently debuted Aerobot. The Facebook Messenger-based bot answers customers’ queries about flight schedules, departure and arrival times, and ticket pricing.

2. Relationships that scale. Humans are hardwired to form intimate connections one-on-one, not in large groups. Chatbots have been so successful in part because they apply that psychological principle at scale.

Not only do customers prefer the intimacy and immediacy of chatbots to every interaction channel besides face-to-face communication — and especially to apps — but they also think chatbots are just plain fun.

If you watched this year’s Super Bowl, you probably remember how big a hit Kia’s NiroBot was. The Korean automaker teased its Facebook Messenger bot alongside a new crossover model, encouraging viewers to check it out online. In addition to viewing the ad, those who did so could also learn about the vehicle’s technical specs and even its test-driving schedule.

The viral sharing that bots drive is especially helpful for industries in which purchases are rarely made alone. Fandango, before debuting its film finding and ticketing bot last spring, evidently realised this about the movie industry. “The social aspect of what Fandango is doing is really important for Hollywood,” comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told The New York Times. “Most people do not go the movies alone, and there is the potential here to turn a two-ticket purchase into a four-ticket purchase.”

3. Unparalleled user understanding. Nobody wants to buy from a brand that doesn’t “get” him. In fact, it’s the single biggest reason today’s luxury industry is struggling: An Epsilon study found luxury brands are losing as many as 50 percent of their best customers each year to a poor understanding of their needs.

You should learn something new about your customers every time they interact with your brand. What do they like and dislike about your product? Is the price right? What made them choose you over a competitor?

Unfortunately, actually getting answers from customers isn’t easy. Social listening platforms, once hailed as a holy grail for customer insights, have failed to deliver on their promise. Customer satisfaction surveys are notoriously unreliable, and you simply can’t individually interview all your customers online.

Your bot, however, can. Beauty retailer Sephora recently built Kik for this very purpose. “Sephora has done a great job on Kik,” Ben Kosinski, head of marketing agency iCrossing’s innovation unit, recently told VentureBeat. “It understands what customers want and provides relevant curated information.” Kik does so by asking questions via Facebook Messenger to learn which cosmetics Sephora’s online customers want. 

Kik then works with a second bot, Sephora’s Virtual Artist bot, which accurately detects makeup shades in uploaded customer photographs to issue instantaneous cosmetic recommendations. Just think of the treasure troves of customer data that Sephora is amassing, all by means of two autonomous but collaborative chatbots.

4. Cost-effective customer service. Companies are always looking for better ways to serve customers. Internal call centers replaced lone receptionists; outsourced call centers replaced internal teams; and automated phone systems replaced outsourced reps. 

But while older generations have come to grips with these service channels, that doesn’t mean they like them. The nation’s largest generation, Millennials, particularly avoid phone-based service.

So what’s a brand to do? On-call reps get expensive fast, but two-thirds of customers have hung up on automated systems in the past year, frustrated they couldn’t reach a real person.

Perhaps the answer, then, is to take the phone out of the equation entirely. Most customers have been using social media platforms for years to seek service, and 71 percent expect to receive it within five minutes of reaching out — any time, any day.

If social media is the service platform of the future, chatbots are its staff. They provide quality, personalised, any-time-any-place answers to customers, and they’re gaining the social skills to match.

With chatbots, customers can communicate in words that are natural to them — not saying “one” repeatedly to navigate automated menus — and today’s bots can reliably parse those phrases. Then, with no human interaction required, they can address needs ranging from ordering pizza to providing fashion suggestions to tracking flights.

Tomorrow’s customer care

Are chatbots the future of technology? No, but they’re a fantastic business application of artificial intelligence, which is not only the future, but also a vehicle for understanding the past. AI may solve problems we’ve struggled with for generations, from drastically reducing road deaths to making us better people.

Chatbots will soon be the default port of entry for customers of most companies. Done right, they provide scalable, no-hassle service. They bring new customers into the mix while delighting the old. And they do it all without needing hourly pay, time off, or health benefits. Soon, the market will make person-on-the-phone service all but obsolete.

That all assumes, of course, that brands learn the lesson Tay taught: If consumer chatbots are to catch on, they need to be built for trust.

Vince Lynch, CEO of IV.AI
Image Credit: IAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock