Technology

Are chatbots harming your customer service reputation?

Fi Bendall /

Chatbots have become a part of how many organisations deal with customer enquiries. But are chatbots doing more harm than good for your business and its customer service reputation?

Adopting new technologies is a positive thing, but a blind devotion to new technology, when you can see it’s not working, or harming your business, is foolish.

In business, we often have to weigh up whether we opt for cost-effective options that may change or even negatively affect our customer service offering. For many companies, especially small- and medium-sized ones, the adoption of chatbots presents this dilemma.

Once chatbots are implemented, resources can be shifted from costlier human-facing customer service interactions to chatbot-based interactions. It also theoretically frees human customer service staff to handle higher level operations and tasks.

Once the initial outlay for a chatbot build and deployment has been made, there is minimal ongoing outlay. The same can’t be said about human customer service teams.

However, chatbots still don’t have the capacity to deal with anything but the most basic enquiries, requests and conversations. Despite the massive hype that has accompanied the ‘chatbot revolution’, many people, especially those customers dealing with chatbots, remain frustrated.

Writing in TechCrunch two years ago, Faisal Khalid said: “I mean, there’s not a single chatbot I can think of that has won wide praise, or, more importantly, that has proven that chatbots are actually easier to use than an app.”

Only a year or so ago, I expressed a slightly less negative but still sceptical stance in SmartCompany: “Chatbots are still fairly one-dimensional and basic, without the sort of analytical capacity that a really clued in salesperson or customer service agent might possess.”

And just recently, HubSpot’s Justin JW Lee wrote at length about the chatbot sizzle turning to fizzle, as organisations have struggled to meet customer expectations for service: “It’s said that a new product or service needs to be two of the following: better, cheaper, or faster. Are chatbots cheaper or faster than apps? No — not yet, at least. Whether they’re ‘better’ is subjective, but I think it’s fair to say that today’s best bot isn’t comparable to today’s best app.”

A key aspect of whether chatbots are the real deal or not is how an organisation uses them in conjunction with other customer service channels, from good old-fashioned human-staffed call centres through to social media response channels.

Another critical factor is the scope of complexity that an organisation deals with from its customers. The more complex and far-ranging the queries and requests, the less useful chatbots are likely to be for customers. That is, unless the customer service chain is engineered in such a way as to be able to deploy chatbots as a screening frontline, efficiently handling simple requests while skilfully delegating more difficult ones.

However, not enough chatbot programs appear able to do that at this stage. The risk then is this alienates customers even more from the customer service process, leaving them with a poor experience, and organisations with a poor reputation for service.

In a 2016 article, Professor Daniel Polani argued chatbots still lack the most essential of traits for excellent customer service: “compassion and goodwill”.

Professor Polani said: “They have the potential to improve some aspects of customer service and are certainly easier to use than automated phone systems that struggle to understand even your basic personal details. But they’re also another hurdle separating customers from a human who can actually answer difficult questions and, crucially, show the compassion and goodwill that strong customer service is often based on. There’s a chance that chatbots could cause both consumers and companies to find this out the hard way.”

Returning to Justin Lee, he argues we’ve now entered a zone of deflated expectations for chatbots, with more realistic assessments. Chatbot technology is established and can only get better from here, he said.

“The hype is over. And that’s a good thing. Now, we can start examining the middle-grounded grey area, instead of the hyper-inflated, frantic black and white zone,” Lee wrote. “I believe we’re at the very beginning of explosive growth. This sense of anti-climax is completely normal for transformational technology. Messaging will continue to gain traction. Chatbots aren’t going away. NLP and AI are becoming more sophisticated every day.”

So there’s still hope on the horizon for chatbots and what they can potentially do for customer service interactions.

As a business though, you have to decide if that horizon is close enough for you to expend valuable resources on a piece of technology that is probably just as likely to irritate as it is to delight your customers.

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Fi Bendall

Fi Bendall is chief executive of The Female Social Network and a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence, who was described by CEO Magazine as 'The CEO's Secret Weapon'. An expert and pioneer in digital strategy, she has over 23 years’ experience in the digital and tech sectors.

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