Chat Bots vs Live Agents: The impact on the customer experience

Chat bots versus live agents

In my world of customer experience design, there is a lot of talk currently around Chat Bots and conversational user interface experience. Leading global powerhouses are currently directing energy and resources toward experimenting with specific Chat Bot experiences for different user groups. However, because they are effectively just an intelligent technical interaction, customers are not actually engaging with a real person.

Whether customers prefer to talk to a robot or a human (and if they actually even notice), and how this affects the customer experience has been a debatable issue. Some companies and commentators are dead set against the idea — they wholeheartedly believe that speaking with a robot is undesirable and the chat equivalent of talking to voice prompts on the phone (you know, the ones that inevitably end up repeating — ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Did you say no?’ after you have been shouting ‘yes’ at the recording for the past ten minutes). However, I am tempted to side with the school of thought that believes Chat Bots can be the ideal customer service experience — saving your business money in human resources, whilst providing a consistent service — as long as it’s done properly.

Research done by Shopify has shown that people engage and reply “Thank you” to an order confirmation delivered via a chat bot message, but tend to ignore an email. Clearly, they’re doing something right with their conversational commerce.

What are Chat Bots?

Chat Bots (short for Chat Robots, and sometimes referred to as virtual assistants, avatars and just plain old bots) are essentially computer programs that simulate human conversations with people using artificial intelligence and machine learning. Starting out as basic FAQ systems on websites, nowadays they can transform the way a user interacts from a series of self-initiated tasks to a quasi-conversation, and look set to replace many App functions entirely.

Essentially a Chat Bot is created to assist a user in solving a problem or attending to their query. They can provide very simple information, like a weather report, or help you troubleshoot a computer problem. Whilst one user is usually human, applications are currently being developed to allow two chat bots to communicate with one another.

The rise of the Chat Bot

I can definitely understand why Chat Bots have become ‘a thing.’ For the last five or so years, businesses have all been rushing out to create their own App. This was because there were many benefits in doing so. First of all, by simply existing on the user’s mobile device, apps played a constant role in providing top of mind awareness. Businesses would create loyalty programs on their app, to build a stronger customer relationship and offer a unique incentive to purchase. In addition, businesses could take advantage of customer purchase behaviour information provided by analytics and location data, allowing them to better target their marketing plans. Effectively, apps made it easier and more exciting for customers to press the “buy” button… well, until they became tired of downloading hundreds of different apps in the first place, that is.

And then, enter the Chat Bot stage left, as a direct response to App weariness. Chat Bots made immediate sense. Everyone was already living in Chat — social media, various different chat Apps, texting, tweeting and conversing. Because we are already used to this medium, I think that’s a massive tick for Chat Bots straight off the mark.

Chat Bots vs Live Chat

I can see the immediate benefits of Chat Bots over live chat, with an actual customer services agent. Chat Bots can have unlimited concurrent conversations (humans can only realistically focus properly on a few at the same time), provide coverage 24/7, and the cost per conversation is significantly less. In addition, with a live agent, it would be impossible for them to provide a conversation experience and professional manner that is consistent across multiple different customers, even throughout the one conversation with the same customer. With a Chat Bot, businesses can be confident the conversation will always take the same format and tone.

Interestingly, some businesses have actually taken an approach that combines the benefits of using both live agents and Chat Bots. Essentially, they created a format where the repetitive questions were handled by the Chat Bots, because these are the easiest to code and envision the outcome of the conversation. The more complex questions or complaints by VIP or high spend clients (the top 10% perhaps) would be looked after by the live agent, who would be given very precise instructions about conversation style and customer experience goals. The Chat Bots and live agents need to be powered by a single knowledge base and backed by a central knowledge management and workflow platform to make it work though.

Combining human thought processes and artificial intelligence

My personal take on the place that Chat Bots take in our customer interactions is that they should contain a blend of human thought processes and artificial intelligence. This method should be factored into their operating systems, as described above, and also in their initial creation. For example, experimentation from a human perspective is the best way to create a realistic and pleasing Chat Bot experience. Instead of putting more time and energy into coding when creating their corporate Chat Bot, global leaders prefer to actually act out the conversation with real humans to discover how the conversation should go.

Chat Bots in business today

Chat Bots, being new, are the perfect customer experience tool for small to medium size businesses to adapt right now, whilst technology and trends are still developing and new advances in artificial intelligence are being made. Creating a Chat Bot doesn’t have to be a large, complicated project in which to invest a lot of time and energy. Pullstring, for example, provides adaptable templates to give businesses a great start on theirs, learning as they go and hopefully having some fun along the way too. The actual personality of the Bot is important — try to strike the right balance between friendly, helpful and respectful. I would imagine there can be some culture gaps, so if your audience/customer base is international, steer away from cultural conversational jargon that may confuse someone on the other side of the world. For example, by starting your conversation with “G’day”.

I have great expectations for the direction that Chat Bots will take the customer experience. Automation is not necessarily something to be afraid of, as long as human thought processes are at its heart.


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