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The right (and wrong) ways to use bots

Apr 5, 2018 | 3 minutes read | Entrepreneurship

Even if you haven’t heard of bots by now, you’ve almost certainly interacted with at least one. They’re one of the more popular topics in business technology right now, and not necessarily for the best reasons. Though some have been successful, the ones that make headlines do so because they’re largely monumental failures.

You might’ve heard of Tay, Microsoft’s Twitter-based chatbot that learned to spew racist and misogynistic language in just a few days. While that was more of an experiment in machine learning rather than a bot meant to actually help customers, it certainly left an impression.

In terms of a small business, the right way to use a chatbot (Yes—small businesses can use them! ) is one that’s subtle and isn’t supposed to make headlines. Here, we’ll talk about what exactly chatbots are good for, why they fail, and the best ways to make use of them.

Defining key terms

Let’s get the terminology sorted out, because this is where people first tend to get confused—myself included.

Bot: A bot is an automated program that executes some form of task online. These tasks can be just about anything: making reservations, tracking down information based on a keyword, even making online purchases faster than a human ever could.

Chatbot: Bots designed to simulate human conversation with people online. Things tend to get interesting with chatbots because the ever-evolving nature of how we use language isn’t something a computer can easily pick up on, though improvements are being made constantly.

Artificial Intelligence: It’s important to note that while some bots use artificial intelligence, many do not—they’re far from interchangeable. Generally, the difference lies in Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities, which allows programs to actively learn and adapt processes based on input it receives. This requires a far more complex system that just isn’t accessible to most businesses—yet.

The right way: keep it simple

As it currently stands, there are significant barriers to entry—not to mention, significant risk—in using sophisticated bots. First and foremost, their most realistic, and tested, use for a smaller business is providing simple customer service solutions to free up the time of a person who’d otherwise handle these tasks.

Retrieving basic information during odd hours is a perfect example. On your website, Facebook page, or other social media platform, a chatbot can easily be programmed to respond to requests for hours of operation, the scope of services you provide, or similar simple scenarios. The key is not trying to mimic real conversation—customers aren’t concerned with your fancy robot, they want answers. And they want them as quickly as possible.

The example that immediately comes to mind is Penny, a personal finance management app designed to lighten the feeling of impending doom that inevitably accompanies most young people’s’ attempts to budget their money. Penny is simply a chatbot. Users link their bank accounts, credit cards, and other relevant financial outlets, and Penny reports on them in a tone that’s casual, conversational, almost fun, while never going so far as to attempt to sound human.

Penny gives insights on your spending habits and asks, very specifically, what areas you’re more interested in learning about. Your responses to Penny are limited, so there’s no room for confusion.

The wrong way: trying to do too much

Bots fail when they’re designed to do too much. If you’re hoping for a computer program that’ll replace your entire customer service infrastructure, you’re setting yourself and your customers up for disappointment. Instead, it should supplement your customer service, making it easier for your team to do what a computer can’t, which is deliver a genuine, human experience.

This boils down to the most basic, but most easily overlooked customer service insight, which is: Stop trying to amaze your customers. That’s not what they want. Start trying to deliver on your promises, every single time, with a consistently effortless experience.

In short: Employing a chatbot to present users with options for quick answers via Facebook Messenger? Right—but don’t forget to include an option to transfer the conversation to an actual person for more complex requests. Employing a chatbot as an open canvas to attempt to answer any question or engage in conversation? Wrong. Don’t do this.

The future freaks us out too, don’t worry. We’ll navigate it together! Though there’s lots of buzz surrounding bots, artificial intelligence, and their various successes and failures, we’re still in the very early stages of the development of this technology. They’re absolutely not for everyone, and using them inappropriately will do much more harm than good.

Jamie is the Channel Relations Manager for PATLive. PATLive is a 24/7 live answering service that answers calls for thousands of businesses nationwide using its proprietary software and top-notch agents.

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