Chatbots. Every organization wants one, but nobody knows what to do with them. Chatbot technology can be viewed as overhyped with each tech news cycle singing their apparent praises or obvious shortcomings. There sure are a wide variety of opinions on the matter, and I’m about to inject another into the pile.
You may remember Facebook’s big chatbot push in 2016—when they announced that they were opening up the Messenger platform to chatbots of all varieties. Every organization suddenly needed to get their hands on the technology. The idea of having conversational chatbot technology was enthralling, but behind all the glitz, glamour and tech sex appeal, was something a little bit less exciting. To quote Gizmodo writer, Darren Orf:
“The problem is that most Messenger chatbots are dull conversationalists, so most of my chats sound unnatural, punctuated by moments of frustrating silence.”
What’s Wrong With Chatbot Technology Today
Beyond being dull conversationalists, nowadays chatbots are being rushed out the doors of many organizations, and subsequently failing to reach their full potential due to the “me-too” attitude many organizations employ. What marketers and organizations are promising, and the reality of the situation, are two very very different things.
- Simplified and scripted. Chatbot technology is being tacked on to the broader AI message, and while it’s important to note that machine learning will help chatbots get better at understand and responding to questions, it’s not going to make them the conversationalists we dream them to be. No matter what the marketing says, chatbots are entirely scripted. User says x, chatbot responds y.
- Lack contextual awareness. Not everyone has all of the data that Google has – but chatbots today lack the awareness that we expect them to have. We assume that chatbot technology will know our IP address, browsing history, previous purchases, but that is just not the case today. I would argue that many chatbots even lack basic connection to other data silos to improve their ability to answer questions.
- Not integrated. This goes hand-in-hand with the contextual knowledge, but chatbots often suffer from “death by data silo” where their access to data is limited. If a chatbot is “chatting with” a customer, they not only need to access the contextual data of their customer but also have access to every place where the answer to the customer’s question may reside. Product documentation site, customer community, different websites are all places where that answer can be.
- Poor user experience. The bottom line: chatbots frustrate your customers if you are viewing them as a replacement for humans. Do not ever, ever try to pass of a chatbot as a human. If your chatbot suffers from any of the issues above, you’re probably creating a poor customer experience overall and an angry phone call to a poor unsuspecting call center rep.
Some organizations are promising chatbots can take on complex, human-like complex tasks. In reality, they can’t—at least not yet!
There are situations for chatbots, however, if you are able to recognize the limitations of chatbot technology. The real value from chatbots come from limited workflows such as a simple question and answer or trigger and action functionality, and that’s where the technology is really shining. People tend to want to find answers without the need to talk to a real person, so organizations are enabling their customers to seek help how they please. Mastercard allows users to check in with their accounts by messaging its respective bot. Whole Foods uses a chatbot for its customers to easily surface recipes, and Staples partnered with IBM to create a chatbot to answer general customer inquiries about orders, products and more.
The Future of Chatbot Technology
It’s not all doom and gloom for chatbots. Chatbots are a stopgap until virtual assistants are able to tackle all of our questions and concerns, regardless of the site or platform. Virtual assistants will eventually connect to everything in your digital life, from websites to IoT-enabled devices. Rather than going through different websites and speaking to various different chatbots, the virtual assistant will be the platform for finding the answers you need. If these assistants are doing such a good job, why would you even bother to use a branded chatbot? Realistically this won’t take place for sometime, due to the fragmentation of the marketplace.
To envision the future of chatbots/virtual assistants, we need to take a quick trip down memory lane. Remember Clippy? Love him or hate him, he’s ingrained in our memory as the little assistant who couldn’t (sorry, Clippy.). But someday, this paper clip could be the chosen one. Imagine with me if you will a support agent speaking with a customer over the phone, or even chat support. Clippy could be listening in, reviewing the questions the customer is posing, and proactively providing relevant content to the support agent. Instead of digging around from system to system, good ‘ole Clippy would have their back, saving them the trouble of hunting down relevant information needed for the task at hand.
Alternatively, think about the times you are chatting with a colleague over Slack. The need to find relevant information typically happens during conversations, and instead of having to go to a browser to start searching, you could simply summon your friendly Slack chatbot and get it to do the work for you. Think of it as your own personal podcast producer – pulling up documents, facts, and data at the drop of a hat. This concept can be translated into the virtual assistants we use on the daily. Think about an ambient assistant like Alexa or Google Home that could just be part of a group conversation. Or your trusted assistant taking notes and actions during a meeting.
So next time you’re considering implementing chatbot technology, be sure to have your expectations in check, understand and map your use cases, and don’t fall for the “me-too” marketing nonsense. Chatbots can indeed be useful, just viewed under the right lens, and the right amount of data to power your queries.
Oh and by the way: We’ve been hard at work on some interesting projects at Coveo, one of those focusing squarely on the world of chatbots. We’ve leveraged our insight engine, and enabled it to work within the confines of your preferred chat tool: the power of Coveo, in chatbot form. The best part about our work in the field of chatbots? The code is out there in the wild waiting for you to utilize it, providing that you are already a customer or partner of Coveo. All you need to do is jump over to the Coveo Labs github page, download it, and get your hands dirty!