Now’s the time to talk about chatbots

Slowly but surely, chatbots are becoming ingrained into our everyday lives – both in our homes in the form of Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, and increasingly in business as an effective form of customer services.

This is revolutionising how customers interact with banks, insurers, and even fashion retailers – H&M has a chatbot which recommends outfits to shoppers.

So, what are chatbots? Essentially, they are computer programs controlled by an artificial intelligence, designed to navigate human interactions.

Early chatbots were text-based and developed to entertain users on social media and messaging services. But significant developments have been made in the technology, and businesses both big and small have started to deploy these bots in a variety of ways.

The most crucial advantage to businesses in using chatbots is to provide customer support 24 hours a day, seven days a week – an online chatbot can interact with customers, answer queries, and solve some problems at any time of day. This essential development gives businesses the ability to boost productivity, and particularly aides smaller firms with an online presence, which may not be able to provide constant coverage with an employee.

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For example, UK tech startup, Habito launched an AI-powered digital mortgage adviser in 2016. Their customers could discuss their mortgage needs with Habito at any time of day from an internet-connected device, without needing to speak to a person.

Habito claims that once the chatbot has collected important details about a customer’s financial situation, it could calculate a monthly payment and explain how their decisions would impact their mortgage – just like a traditional human broker, but in a fraction of the time. Their team of in-house mortgage experts can then help answer more specific questions.

Meanwhile, the growth of the so-called “on-demand” economy means that many consumers expect convenience and want answers to questions at any time of day. They do not want to be stuck on a phone, and would be much happier chatting to customer services online. This is more convenient, simpler, and for consumers used to messaging services such as WhatsApp, it can feel more natural. As chatbots become more sophisticated, consumers are unlikely to be able to tell the difference between a chatbot and a human.

Andy Davis, managing director of business finance providers, White Oak UK says:

There’s certainly a shift in businesses embracing the benefits of online engagement, it’s become second nature for many to use these alternative forms of technology when talking to your bank or phone provider for example, but reach is growing.

Andy Davis continued:

What is clear is that customers have come to expect these services, and for a range of reasons. We introduced live chat to our own website in 2017, and the levels of engagement have been phenomenal – for business users constrained by the nine to five, it’s a way to get in touch out of hours, at their leisure, it’s all about delivering a new level of customer service, when your customers demand it.

Providing constant coverage through chatbots could be a big boost for small businesses, as it can improve the customer experience without the cost of paying night-time employees.

Also, it is becoming commonplace to engage with banks and other service providers using web chat, which often uses bots. This can be a huge benefit to busy workers who may not have time to wait on a phone or in a bank during office hours.

Using chatbots to boost productivity will likely help small businesses with an online presence to grow faster. The technology provides more choice in terms of how customers interact with businesses, and supports out-of-hours engagement. Put simply, chatbots are going to appear more often because of their potential efficiency gains.

Rather than replacing human workforces, it is expected that automation will mean basic and repetitive work will be done by a bot. Meanwhile, human staff can exercise their minds on demanding tasks, develop their skills, and deal with more complex (and rewarding) problems.

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