We live in an era where customer support teams are regularly overloaded with requests, but companies struggle to justify investment in additional hands. One solution has emerged in recent years that’s incredibly popular for its low cost and ease of adoption — chatbots.
However, for all that chatbots can help streamline budgets and reduce overheads, they can also be an immense source of frustration for customers. It’s also worth considering that not all chatbots are created equal — those with advanced conversational capabilities are far more expensive (and potentially little more effective) than those built with limited, predefined responses.
It’s impossible to say whether there’s a long-term future for chatbots in customer service. They might overtake human operators entirely, or perhaps they’ll be consigned to fad obsolescence alongside the fidget spinner. In this article we’re going to examine the real-world pros and cons of implementing customer service chatbots in today’s service industry.
Types of online chatbot
There are several “levels” of chatbot available for customer support needs:
- Basic clickable chatbot: These are by far the most common and affordable. These chatbots direct customers through multiple choice questions: customers click the relevant answer which leads either to a specific resource or page, or another multiple choice question — and the process repeats. These chatbots often have “free” tiers (of up to a few hundred interactions) and can be implemented very quickly, requiring very little maintenance or “training” over time. Usually these are connected to a third-party service like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp.
- Intelligent virtual assistant: IVAs are a whole other ballgame. These natural language-understanding assistants can (theoretically) respond to regular free text. The chatbot can also understand customer intent, and use this to direct them as efficiently as possible. These create what are known as “Conversation AI” platforms. They are also significantly more expensive and require a time investment to “train” the chatbot and integrate it properly.
- Deeply integrated intelligent virtual assistants: Once again, this is a level up. These bots typically cost tens of thousands of dollars for setup alone, plus $5,000 to $15,000 a month for licensing. They are effectively more advanced versions of the IVA, with the ability to authenticate users through free text interactions and provide them personalized answers automatically based on the data in your database. They can operate in multiple languages, can often be altered with custom code, and provide a more specific and personalized experience for customers. Crucially, however, there is no data yet that suggests these are actually any better than current, less advanced methods.
First, let’s take a look at the advantages of customer service chatbots.
Quickly resolve common requests
There is no limit to the number of enquiries a chatbot can address. For companies that receive an excessive amount of enquiries (which could be hundreds a week for a small company, or tens of thousands a day for a large retailer), hiring enough staff to manually respond to each one can be prohibitively expensive.
A chatbot can be programmed to answer certain questions and direct customers to specific webpages, resources, or products. When doing this, it’s important to acknowledge that you’re using a bot — when customers think you’re pretending to have real humans at the helm, it’s a recipe for reputational damage.
Bots can operate every second of the day, in every time zone, in any language. For more international companies, the ability to provide some kind of interactive support, even when human operators are unavailable, is extremely valuable. Multilingual capability is also powerful — it’s a simple sign that you’re the kind of company they should be interacting with. Done correctly, these features can show prospective customers that you’re going the extra mile on their behalf.
If an enquiry leads to requesting a human, your bot can simply share the hours that your live support team is available along with the relevant contact information.
The cost of hiring a single full-time support agent is significantly higher than implementing a system-wide clickable chatbot. For a large organization processing basic and recurring enquiries, it is a no-brainer from a cost perspective. For an intelligent virtual assistant, the amount of work and cost is significantly higher; however, they offer a very different experience. It’s also true that we don’t truly know the long-term effects on revenue or customer loyalty from implementing chat bots.
So while cost optimization is generally a major plus point, it’s not always “cheap,” per se.
And now, the other side of the coin: disadvantages.
Limited range of answers
By far the biggest disadvantage to an online chatbot (even a relatively advanced one) is that it just has nowhere near the range of comprehension that all human operators have. The breadth and variety of possible requests — and the phrasing used to make them — is well beyond the scope of chatbots.
This means that, at least for the foreseeable future, you will always need human operators available to jump in and help.
Not suitable for all companies
Unless your company has a significant number of resources, webpages, or products to send users to, then there is very little a chatbot can actually do — other than answer basic questions like opening hours or, perhaps, checking product availability.
If you’re unsure, it’s important to speak to potential vendors and get their opinion on exactly how a chatbot could help your business.
Extremely agitating for return enquiries
When I’m returning a product (or have experienced issues with a product), the last thing I want is to interact with a bot. I will instantly request connection to a human, usually without even attempting to use the bot.
Product returns or complaints are some of the most crucial customer interactions for companies; they need to be handled deftly and with care, since the future of that customer is in the balance. Struggling your way through a repetitive chatbot can make a frustrated customer’s blood boil — just something to consider. Some companies filter product returns automatically to human operators.
Requires ongoing maintenance
You can’t just set up a chatbot and leave it running indefinitely. They require maintenance, updates, and training on their use will evolve over time. It’s important to remember that while you might save resources on human support agents, you also need someone (or a team) to manage the bots themselves.
The reality is that there are potential ups and downs to chatbots in almost any company. There is definite evidence of companies speeding up service requests and handling “common” enquiries (and improving the customer experience) far more effectively — and that’s fantastic!
The biggest unknown with chatbots is the long-term effect of negative interactions, such as the times when customers want to throw their laptop out the window rather than spend another minute failing to get through to a chatbot.
Thankfully, those are in the minority, and this technology is only improving. Perhaps in five to 10 years we’ll be saying with total confidence that, unlike the fidget spinner, online chatbots will influence our lives and shopping habits for a long time to come.