1 January 2019

Chatbot Invasion: Are We Ready to Replace Human Customer Service With AI? | Aaron Henriques

The way we do customer service is evolving at a rapid pace. Gone are the days where phone calls and email were the only options – we’re now branching into digital methods of communication. Particularly over the last few years, live chat has become recognised as a highly effective way of business and consumer communication, allowing for the customer to receive service quickly and conveniently.

On average, a live chat customer service operator can handle 4-6x more chats at any given time than a telephone customer service operator. There are clear cost savings here, as well as benefits to customers, due to shorter waiting times to speak to an operator.

With this in mind, the debate on whether real humans or chatbots are more efficient in live chat has been circulating around the web. Chatbots are robots which simulate human conversation using artificial intelligence. In the customer service world, they aim to replace human chat agents and provide a new customer service experience.

Gartner predicts that by 2020, customers and businesses will manage 85% of their relationship usings bots. It’s easy to see the immediate benefits of chatbots: they can manage customers 24 hours a day without human supervision, making them useful for companies with high volumes of website traffic and low numbers of customer service staff. They’re also more cost effective that employing real humans to answer live chats.

The problem with chatbots, however, is that they fail to provide that personal, bespoke interaction that many people feel is important in customer service. In fact, a study by Accenture uncovered that 83% of consumers prefer dealing with real people for customer service enquiries. Another study found that 50% of chatters left a chat when they believed they were talking to a bot instead of a human.

Let’s look at this objectively. Bots are computer programmes. They are brilliant at analysing, retrieving and calculating data within seconds, making them ideal for performing analytical tasks. They are not, however, at all capable of understanding human emotion, nor can they interpret the different ways in which people write. They are programmed to behave in a certain way and are only able to respond to predefined questions. They cannot leave these boundaries, meaning they cannot think critically or understand context.

Humans, on the other hand, are able to truly understand a customer’s query and think outside of the box to provide a personalised answer. They can provide an interaction that goes way beyond the capabilities of a bot, using empathy and emotion to help the customer feel listened to, understood, and most importantly, cared about. As a result, the quality of the customer service is significantly better than that which a chatbot could provide.

Given how critical good customer service is to the success of most businesses, it is arguably much more important to focus on the consumer experience. While chatbots may be tempting due to their lower cost and 24/7 coverage, they don’t compare to the empathetic, genuine connection that can be facilitated by a real human. Indeed, 60% of consumers in a StarTek survey stated that they want to speak with a human who “cares about me personally and both answers my questions as well as offers insights.

Personally, I feel that the use of chatbots is the lazy answer for businesses.

Companies introduce chat bots for different reasons. Perhaps they think they’re staying ahead of competitors by doing so, but haven’t researched the negative impact bots may have on their customers. Others may have a staff shortage, so feel that using a bot is better than not being able to provide help at all. There are also companies who think of nothing more than their bottom line and customer satisfaction is not their primary concern.

I find bots frustrating. It’s happening more and more often that when I call a company, I have to speak to a robot. For instance, a conversation with my bank could go like this: “Tell me what you’re calling about“, I say something like “Remortgaging” and it comes back with “You want to dispute a charge on your account, is that right?“…”NO!” The loop continues. I get frustrated and it frequently ends up cutting the call before I ever got to speak to a real human and I’ve just wasted 20 minutes of my day. It’s exactly the same with live chat.

It may help your bottom line in the short term. But long term, your customers will feel frustrated and annoyed, and start looking at alternatives. I do think chatbots certainly do have their place and are a very useful tool for a lot of businesses. For example, there are bots out there which can tell me my financial plan for the rest of the week, month or year. I would never call my bank to ask my balance or when a direct debit is due to come out. I’ve seen them most successfully used as a ‘search tool’ to guide you to a specific article on your website. They’re useful for common questions as a new innovative way to replace a static FAQ page.

The most important thing to ask is: do your customers want to speak with chatbots? Probably not.

While chatbots can be useful in some circumstances, consumers generally show huge preference towards real human interaction, as the quality of the communication is much better. Excellent customer service is critical to the success of most businesses, and, as such, it makes sense to choose the method of service preferred by consumers. For the foreseeable future, it seems that genuine human interaction will continue to be the most important element of customer service. Let’s not forget: even with all the technology surrounding us, interaction with real people is what we all really desire.

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