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VoiceSage’s John Duffy reflects on the recent news about Facebook closing down its virtual assistant and what that could mean for brand use of the chatbot option in customer outreach

Facebook says it will be ending ‘M’, its virtual assistant this month (https://www.wired.com/story/facebooks-virtual-assistant-m-is-dead-so-are-chatbots/?utm_source=Daily+Email&utm_campaign=ad0fdc1b73-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_09&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_03a4a88021-ad0fdc1b73-248610509). What’s to make of this move?

It seems that M’s core problem was that Facebook made a classic chatbot error; it tried to pass the software off as ‘as good as’ human help. Most tasks it managed ended up not being automated and passed to humans, and, as a result, M ended up being a big cost centre for Facebook.

Is the lesson that chatbots are dead and that we all need to stop using them? No. The lesson is to use virtual assistants and chatbots for a narrow, simpler set of tasks.

After all, many businesses are starting to realise the potential of chatbot automation. This is the feedback we received at a recent practitioners’ event organised by VoiceSage, in collaboration with the UK Contact Centre Forum.

Attendees were drawn from a diverse range of backgrounds including senior UK customer contact practitioners from the legal, retail, health and manufacturing industries, together with CX (Customer Experience) experts from vendors and consulting firms. And from the get go, it was clear that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is high on marketing and CX team radars, with the discussion lasering in on what it will soon mean for UK brands.

The consensus: most contact centre managers see chatbots as a useful CX tool – but most are still wary about how this new technology can be seamlessly integrated into the customer experience without causing disruption.

Chatbot takeover?

What we do know for sure: organisations are increasingly using chatbots in their business strategy – from booking tickets, ordering food, helping to improve customers’ credit scores to acting as a personal shopping assistant, personal PA, even dispensing medical advice [https://www.techworld.com/picture-gallery/apps-wearables/9-best-uses-of-chatbots-in-business-in-uk-3641500/]. Examples are fast accruing about the wide range of use cases the tech can support.

And according to analyst firm Gartner, by 2021, more than 50% of enterprises will spend more per annum on bots and chatbot creation than traditional mobile app development [https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/gartner-top-strategic-predictions-for-2018-and-beyond/]. Facebook’s decision needs to be put in that context, certainly.

Mobile & Instant Messenger take lead roles

Attendees at the roundtable, for example, were unified in their belief that mobiles are now imperative in winning customer attention, with Messenger and other IM platforms are where customers want to talk. That’s because they want convenience (hence the enormous use of messaging apps). Customers are no-longer willing to spend ages trawling for results – they want everything in one easy to access place, such as WhatsApp.

Swapping seats with robots

Chatbots are undoubtedly a great concept, but as the M issue makes all the more pressing – how much can they do effectively – and what should customer service centres do with the human agents they have? Some of the practitioners at the roundtable felt AI would be a great opportunity for centres to differentiate, providing enhanced customer engagement for more complex issue via human agents.

Making the connection

While some attendees were adamant that customers prefer bots for more simple tasks, others did not feel this was the case. A few attendees noted that although some customers were tech-savvy and feel very comfortable dealing with bots, others had an aversion to virtual systems and always prefer to interact with a human being. This was especially so with transactions where customers expect human contact, such as when dealing with personal financial transactions.

Bots are here to stay
There is no escaping the fact that chatbots are a powerful tool for brand to consumer communications, and will be increasingly adopted, and where customers expect the choice omnichannel offers, chatbots are carving out a niche. Importantly, attendees at the roundtable concluded that to be a success customers must be offered a choice, for fear of turning them away.

The Facebook M example also shows they are a cost-saver only if tightly integrated into the business and used for simple automated tasks by and large. By taking this route, chatbots can enhance customer service, save customers time and provide them with help where and when they want it – which is a message that any headlines about the end of chatbots will certainly miss.

John Duffy is Enterprise Sales Consultant at VoiceSage, a specialist in Proactive Customer Engagement solutions (www.voicesage.com)

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