Chatbots for Business: What You Should Know

by Ben Dwyer

Chatbots are being touted as the next big thing in technology, with everyone from tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to Taco Bell, CNN, Amtrak, HSBC, the NBA, and Disney using them.

Industry analysts point out that while many mobile apps are rarely used more than once, over 2.5 billion people actively use instant messaging apps every month. Users of WhatsApp, the most popular chat platform by far, spend an average of nearly 200 minutes each week actively using the app.

This makes chatbots as essential of a tool as a website, customer service line, and social media presence in reaching and servicing customers. Of course, that’s only the consumer applications – enterprise apps like Slack are hoping their chatbots can spark the next business revolution.

What is a chatbot?

In the simplest terms, a chatbot is a computer program that can responsively interact with people. It’s a conversation robot.

Chatbots vary in complexity. Some can only reply to basic questions or word-for-word requests, while others are programmed to understand variations of the request. There are chatbots that handle productivity tasks and chatbots in spheres like customer service.

The Advantages of Chatbots for Business

As Kip (a Slack chatbot itself) explains on the blogging site Medium, the advantage of chatbots is automation and productivity.

Prior to the industrial revolution, we depended on individually trained artisans to hand-produce goods, which was a time-consuming effort with varying quality. Using machinery, factories were able to replicate redundant processes to produce 10x the output in a fraction of the time.

This manufacturing advantage allowed new companies to form and disrupt old industries. We saw the same thing happen with the invention of the consumer internet and both social media and mobile phones were used as tools to revolutionize business once again.

Chatbots are the next natural evolution of the Internet for two important reasons. First, chatbots allow users to seamlessly interact with multiple apps from one location. This is important because it allows the bot to take on menial tasks from the user.

For example, instead of closing our text conversation to pull up a map and find the closest restaurant, then closing the map to pull up the website to look at the menu, then closing the browser to call and make a reservation, I can have a virtual assistant like Siri, Cortana, or Google Now accomplish all of that from a single interface.

Chatbots can help save time, labor, and money when used to handle easily automated tasks or low-pressure customer-facing situations.

The Disadvantages of Chatbots

Perhaps the biggest current disadvantage is the uncertainty of chatbots’ future and the fact that many are still somewhat primitive. While it’s possible that they’ll become a money-saving automation staple, it’s also possible that they won’t. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the time or money spent would be wasted, but it could mean that there are no new updates or developments to keep chatbots relevant.

That said, they have become increasingly common as a first line of customer service for online retailers and show no current signs of going away.

Chatbots for Productivity

For businesses, learning to use chatbots is a vital step to remaining competitive in the next iteration of the internet. These chatbots can automate tasks traditionally performed by humans while providing a simple user interface.

For example, Slack’s chatbot (appropriately known as the Slackbot) works like an AI virtual assistant. Slackbot can schedule appointments and follow-ups, answer simple questions, file expense reports, and complete other administrative tasks, acting as an executive assistant for even solo entrepreneurs or small mom-and-pop operations.

The company also has plans to upgrade its AI to act as a knowledge bank, helping guide everyone from new hires to C-suite executives in completing their tasks, similar to Tony Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S. AI assistant in the Iron Man and Avenger movies. It’s a move that will soon give anyone the power of a full corporate organization behind them.

Many large companies are even creating their own AI chatbots like Overstock’s Mila, which “mans” the company’s employee sick line, coordinating schedules and workloads in the backend while offering a friendly voice to the end-user.

Once you’re familiar with using chatbots for productivity, you’ll be experienced enough to start developing consumer chatbots.

Chatbots for Consumer-Facing Tasks

Not every chatbot is about productivity. Many of them are made to have fun (although not always in the way the developer intended, as Microsoft learned with its Tay Twitter AI). Taco Bell’s Tacobot doesn’t just let you order directly from your Slack app, it also responds with personality and an obvious affinity for tacos.

As far as functionality goes, there’s no limit to what chatbots can do. Bank bots allow users to check account information and initiate transfers. Retail bots enable browsing, purchasing, and even returns. Insurance bots answer personalized policy and coverage questions. How your bot interacts with people is a reflection of your brand.

The two most pressing considerations in developing a consumer chatbot are what functionality you want it to have and which platform to choose. Be aware that not every chat platform welcomes bots. WhatsApp, for example, may be owned by Facebook, but its terms and conditions strictly prohibit the use of bots. Creating one will get your account banned.

Facebook Messenger, on the other hand, actively encourages bot development on its platform. The company even has a blog post explaining how to reach its 1 billion-strong user base. At 300 million registered users, Kik is another great platform to build a bot on. The company provides an API online for developers as well.

Ongoing Development

Despite often being referred to as artificial intelligence, chatbots are still based on the same cell-and-column datasets as everything else. Natural speech recognition and contextual search have advanced far enough that these chatbots can imitate AI very well.

Still, as more apps are developed for more devices, the ability of chatbots to keep up is questionable. Whether this rush represents the next bubble or the next digital user experience remains to be seen, but major brands are already finding major success implementing bots both internally and externally and it’s worth considering if bots make sense for you.

As graph-based databases and AI technology continues to develop, chatbots five years from now will have advanced as far from chatbots of today as Siri has from her original release on the iPhone 4s in 2010. There’s no better time to start using them than now, especially if you have a lot of basic administrative functions that a bot could easily handle.

Do you use chatbots at your business? Tell us what kind and how successful it’s been in the comments!

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