Back to basics: What are chatbots and why do you need one?

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Do you remember when it was enough for messaging apps to simply carry messages back and forthThat wasn’t actually too long ago, but these days, the programs used by billions across the world are quite literally developing minds of their own 

With the rise of artificial intelligence has come a new dimension to online messaging services: chatbot programs that can offer human-like engagement without needing any real-time human input. 

It’s a shift that could well change marketing forever, with businesses given the ability to answer questions, solve problems and offer general guidance without needing to allocate dedicated staff. 

The rewards are plentiful, but to reap them, you’ll need to understand the ins and outs. 

Why you need chatbots 

Although it may not be immediately obvious, customer service is one of the average businesses’ biggest resource drains. 

Those large enough to have dedicated teams will find themselves spending big on wages, while smaller companies have talented staff spending valuable time answering basic questions. This is where chatbots can really make a difference. 

AI-powered messaging systems, if intelligent enough, can automate a significant chunk of the service process without it affecting customer experience. These programs are developing at such a rate that it can sometimes be difficult for users to know they’re not talking to a real agent. If the conversation demands it, a human can get involved. 

When integrating chatbots with other customer communications, like text messaging SMS APIs, email marketing, social media and directly through your website, you can create a powerful service offering, reflective of your brand and core messaging.  

The importance of messaging 

It’s often assumed that customers are most likely to get in touch with a business through social media, and it’s true that platforms like Twitter and Facebook are crucial these days, but the rise of messaging cannot be ignored.  

By the end of 2015, the world’s top four messaging apps – WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Viber – collectively had 2.125 billion monthly active users, all of which are mobile users.

It would be wrong to say that basic chatbots don’t have a place in customer service, but businesses must be realistic about their capabilities

That’s the same as the four biggest social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.  

What’s more, the messaging figure is still rising, and users are more insistent than ever that businesses make themselves available through such channels. Chatbots will help companies meet this inevitable demand. 

How to get it right (and wrong) 

There are two types of chatbot: the unintelligent ones that rely on predefined conversation flows and answers written in advance by human developers, and the AI-powered chatbots that use machine learning to become more ‘human’. 

The first type is essentially the equivalent of an automated touch-tone telephone service that guides callers through a series of questions, in the hope of being able to offer some useful advice; if the user’s requirements are anything but rudimentary, it tends to lead only to frustration and more stress. 

A more advanced chatbot, with the help of AI, will develop over time, learning more about your customer’s needs and how they like to interact.

It will be more complex and thus more expensive to build or secure, but the result is a higher level of customer satisfaction that pays dividends in the long run.It delivers a more personal experience that will no doubt be appreciated by customers. 

It would be wrong to say that basic chatbots don’t have a place in customer service, but businesses must be realistic about their capabilities. By all means use one to direct users to the right part of your website, but they won’t be capable of handling more detailed enquiries. 

Where to go from here 

Unless your business happens to specialise in software development, creating a chatbot will be a daunting task – one that you’re best to get some help with, especially if you’re after something truly valuable and unique.

The ideal partner will be one that works closely with you from start to finish, to ensure things like branding and tone are consistent throughout. 

If the budget won’t quite stretch to third-party help, or you’re insistent on making something in-house, there is software out there you can use to get building. 

Pandorabots is a prime example here, and it can be utilised on multiple levels: the Playground sandbox feature exists to help developers learn the basics and experiment (for free), while it also offers Artificial Intelligence as a Service (AIaaS), giving API access and software development tools. It all depends on how capable you and your existing team are at present. 

Whichever approach you adopt, it’s important to keep your strategy simple.

As a marketer, you should already understand your target audience, and this knowledge will be vital when it comes to building a chatbot – regardless of whether you have help or not.

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