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Will Chatbots Kill the E-mail Star?

Market research indicates that companies will increasingly be turning to chatbot responses for customer service, rather than, say, e-mail from a human customer service rep.

Next year, for example, 20% of companies are expected to provide customer service via automated communications such as chatbots. Many leading U.S. firms, such as Apple, Nike, Uber, Target and Toys ‘R’ Us, have already replaced customer service e-mail with more automated methods.

So customer service reps may be looking at being increasingly replaced by chatbots. Like the vintage song says, video (the new technology) killed the radio star (the old technology). Will chatbots kill the customer service star?

Will Customer Satisfaction Be the Same?

What about customer satisfaction? Companies seem quite resolute in moving toward chatbots. Firms want to reduce their call volume by more than half in less than two years. Chatbots are efficient, easy to operationalize, and they can handle simple requests, such as the changing of an address, with ease. Business strategy holds that they are more efficient and more cost-effective than human customer service reps.

But customer satisfaction may not be the same with chatbots, leaving human reps to live another day, for several reasons.

First, as Marketing Dive notes, the artificial intelligence that underlies chatbot-dom can’t fully operate without human input to make sure it’s accurate.

What companies look for next year, on the whole, is blended AI: using the technology and the systemic capacity to learn, but still having a person there to pull the chatbot out of any misapprehension. Chatbots are currently accurate roughly 85% of the time.

Indeed, customer service reps may be tasked with tagging words and phrases the chatbot doesn’t understand to augment the chatbot’s learning.

Some communications may still need a more human touch.

Second, despite the penetration of chatbots, many customers and business sectors still work better with a human touch. A customer upset and frustrated about repeated unauthorized charges or delayed shipments, for example, may not be likely to respond well to a sprightly chatbot. Some situations work better with empathy and reassurance.

More somber sections, such as law and funeral services, may also need minimal chatbots and more human services. So do businesses that serve other businesses.

Third, “blended” systems can come in many more varieties than an AI system with human backup.

One solution is to use each system’s effectiveness. Some businesses have adopted a rapid chatbot system through social media channels like Facebook and Twitter, for example, to let customers know that their communication has been received and that they will be contacted. Under that plan, chatbots provide speed and humans provide the human touch.

Another solution is to mobilize chatbots to walk customers through tutorials so that they can self-serve more effectively. This would work with online sites where customers simply need more information about where to find the service they need.

Yet another option is to adopt the system many businesses currently have, which is to ask customers to choose whether to go forward with a chatbot or to engage with a human customer service rep.

The star for a robust business, after all, should be the customer, whether she is served by a person or a chatbot.