By Kristina Podnar published November 3, 2016

Automating Your Customer Interactions: Get Ready for Chatbots

customer-interactions-chatbots

This piece was co-written by Kristi Colleran, co-founder and chief customer and product officer at Sciens.io.

“Markets are conversations,” the Cluetrain Manifesto said in 1999. Today’s markets are more conversational than ever, especially as more and more companies create chatbots for messaging apps. Chatbots (details below) enable us as marketers to do something that we’ve only ever been able to dream of doing: personalize content delivery and have meaningful conversations with customers at scale.

The potential benefits are clear:

  • More cost-effective customer service
  • Faster response times
  • Easier business transactions
  • More convenient ways to address prospects and customers in their preferred medium

The potential pitfalls are also clear:

One misstep and the public at large may not forget.

Read on to learn more about what these chatbots are, how they’re changing the conversation between companies and their customers, and the opportunities (and risks) they represent for marketers.

Messaging on the rise

Before we get to chatbots, let’s take a look at messaging in general. Far from the simple text-messaging programs of the 1990s (like AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger), today’s messaging apps are part of larger “commerce, customer support, and advertising ecosystems,” as described by Erik Devaney in this Drift article.

In the last two years, while marketers have focused on establishing a presence on social networks (primarily Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram), the total number of active monthly users of messaging apps (primarily WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and Kik) has surpassed those social networks.

business-insider-graph

Image source: Business Insider

The exploding popularity of messaging creates an opportunity for companies to connect with their customers like never before in a way that is contextual, relevant, personal, and conversational. That’s where chatbots come in.

Messaging creates a chance for companies to connect w/ customers in a way that is personal by @klcolleran. Click To Tweet

What is a chatbot?

A chatbot is software that automates the task of talking with people, especially over the internet. In much the same way that software programs (Microsoft Word, Excel, and so on) live on your laptop and that apps (Instagram, Pokemon Go, and so on) live on your smartphone, chatbots live on messaging apps. For example, chatbots might live on Facebook Messenger, SMS, Kik, or WeChat.

The best way to understand what chatbots are is to see one in action. Let’s take a look at the chatbot that KLM Royal Dutch Airlines‎ recently introduced for Facebook Messenger. With the customer’s permission, the KLM chatbot automatically “texts” the itinerary, boarding passes, check-in confirmation, and delay notifications. It even connects the traveler with a human staff member if questions arise that the chatbot can’t answer.

Since the chatbot lives on Facebook Messenger, customers don’t need to download and get familiar with a separate app as long as they have the Facebook app.

KLM chatbot on the Facebook Messenger app

Chatbots allow you to be where your customers already are: messaging apps.

Chatbots combine the ease of texting with the intelligence of embedded software programs to carry out any number of tasks, from automating subscription content (like weather and traffic updates) to customizing communications (like receipts, shipping notifications, and live automated messages).

These are just a few use cases. Chatbots open new opportunities to engage your customers with content – at scale.

Chatbots open new opportunities to engage your customers with #content – at scale via @kpodnar @klcolleran. Click To Tweet

Examples of chatbots

Here are some examples of companies that are using chatbots in various industries:

  • TravelKLM, Kayak, and Hyatt help people book trips, deliver their boarding passes, and provide concierge services.
  • Health careHealthTap and MD help people identify illnesses and find health care advice.

tacobot_preview

  • GroceryWhole Foods helps people find recipes and suggests food products based on the listed ingredients.
  • GovernmentThe White House helps people contact government officials, including the U.S. president.

white-house-bot

Image source: The White House blog

Marketers in these organizations are using messaging and chatbots to bring value to their customers, not only through their products and services but also through the entire relationship.

Risks, concerns, failures – and the need for policies

While organizations are experimenting with chatbots, they should avoid over-governing the process. When it’s time to use chatbots to engage customers, it’s time to govern the process in a more mature fashion.

Why? Because chatbots are not without risk. Like all digital media, there are many types of concerns. Examples include:

  • Branding – Does your chatbot appropriately represent your brand in terms of language sensitivity, tone and voice, and local customs based on customer culture?
  • Data localization and governance – In what country does your organization store information gathered from customers via a chatbot? How does your organization structure chatbot and user data? Is that data secured so as to comply with relevant regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act? How is that data stored and transferred across country and regional borders?

Privacy – What information does your chatbot ask for and collect? Does your company use contextual data with explicit permission to market or sell?

  • Children’s online protection – Does your chatbot recognize users under the age of 13 and adjust or deny interactions to them based on legal requirements in the relevant countries?

Because countries have different laws and regulations intended to protect their citizens, the country where your customers’ chatbot interactions originate further dictates which requirements you must follow. You must understand which issues apply to your use of chatbots and how to handle those issues so that you minimize risk and maximize achievement of your marketing objectives.

For brand protection, legal compliance, and competitive advantage in this new arena, organizations need to analyze and prioritize risks. Risks are best addressed with policies adopted by the organization to inform decisions made by marketers regarding online content and technologies. Policies enable organizations to reach their long-term goals. In my (Kristina’s) experience as a digital-policy consultant, policies are most effective when published to a central place that is widely accessible.

You might not think you need policies around chatbots. Neither did many of the early adopters. The failure to fully examine the risks associated with automated conversation resulted in corporate embarrassment. For example, the New England Patriots’ and Microsoft’s separate chatbots tweeted racial slurs. Other miscalculations amounted to providing strange or unhelpful answers, as was the case with Poncho, Facebook’s “weather cat” chatbot, which has been known to give bizarre answers to simple questions.

For organizations already managing their digital assets in a mature manner, the introduction of chatbots may simply call for a meeting with the legal or compliance department to review and extend existing policies.

If you have no policies on which to base new conversational-commerce policies, start by addressing these questions:

  1. Accountability: Who within the organization is accountable for chatbot assets? This person should coordinate with the privacy, risk, and compliance individuals in the organization to identify appropriate policies and governing mechanisms.
  2. Priority: Which top risks should be addressed to protect the brand and reputation of the organization?
  3. Education: Where can people in your organization find these policies so that they can follow them? Is there an easily accessible place where agencies and vendors who support your chatbot creation can find your requirements and documentation?
  4. Compliance: What is necessary to support your policies and ensure that chatbots are created, deployed, and managed in controlled ways that will not break laws or compromise your reputation?

How to get started

Chatbots are gaining momentum. Soon they’ll be just another form of digital communication. How might your company engage people in this new automated way? Where do you start?

Based on our years of working with brands to apply emerging technologies – including my (Kristi’s) experience with messaging and chatbots, and my (Kristina’s) experience helping organizations limit risk and liability when using new technologies – we recommend that you start by considering these questions:

  • Who are your target customers?
  • What messaging apps do they use?
  • What simple, low-risk use cases might you experiment with?
  • Where are your customers or prospects located, and what laws and regulations related to digital marketing apply in those countries?
  • What credible bot-development and maintenance resources might you reach out to?
  • What steps might you take to avoid blunders and privacy or security flops?

Conclusion

Chatbots are redefining the way companies interact with customers, with employees, and with things. They’re opening new opportunities for marketers to use automated content to connect, collaborate, learn, and innovate.

Done well, chatbots can yield clear benefits: cost-effective customer service, faster response times, and easier business transactions. Chatbots also bring pitfalls: costly lawsuits, fines for violating laws or regulations, and damage to the brand.

Is your company using or talking about using chatbots? Please share your experiences and advice in a comment.

Want more on content strategy for marketers? Sign up for our Content Strategy for Marketers weekly email newsletter, which features exclusive insights from CMI Chief Content Adviser Robert Rose. If you’re like many other marketers we meet, you’ll come to look forward to his thoughts every Saturday.

Need more ideas on how to create killer chatbot content? Download our latest collection of amazing brand examples: Get Inspired: 75 (More) Content Marketing Examples

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Kristina Podnar

Kristina is a management consultant who works with Fortune 500, government, and not-for-profit organizations to solve their toughest challenges related to IT and digital governance. She has a BA in International Studies, an MBA in International Business from the Dominican University of California, and is a certified Change Management Practitioner (APMG International) and a Project Management Professional (Project Management Institute). Follow Kristina on Twitter @kpodnar.

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  • http://adventurist.life Brian Driggs

    Much as I tend to fear this is the technology which will turn working with brands online into the frustrating, automated hell we all know and love when we try calling our service providers these days, this was an enlightening–and dare I say it, inspiring–read.

    Anything less than a real human, empowered to immediately solve the problem and driven to delight the customer, suggests their calls are anything but important.

    That said, careful use of technology to speed customer satisfaction through pleasant, efficient interactions is worth exploring. 🙂

    • Kristi Colleran

      I think you hit on one of the keys to success when you noted “careful use of technology”. This requires an investment in understanding the state of the technology and smartly applying it to relevant use cases in small, iterative pilots incorporating lessons learned as you continue to iterate. Happy exploring!

  • Barry Schaeffer

    I grant you that technology is coming ever closer to an attempt to be human (Ray Kurzeil would go even further) but I can’t help remembering the scene in a 1970s science fiction film where the main character seeks counsel from an automated therapy kiosk. As he pours his heart and concerns out, the bot on the other end merely keeps repeating soothing phrases, only minimally connected to what our hero is saying and completely disconnected from his problems.
    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Chatbots are taking us in that direction, but it wouldn’t be the first time that technology acted out its undeservedly high opinion of its capabilities. As very least, it would seem, a high level of skepticism is in order.

    • Kristi Colleran

      It is human nature to greet the new and novel with a sense of excitement and anticipation for the possible, along with a good measure of skepticism! As technologies evolve there is always a lot of experiments and many fail. While this process is painful, it is incredibly informative. The experiments that succeed lead to new tools and services that are widely adopted. The investment companies make in chatbots today will yield greater understanding and improvement over time. The more businesses know, the better positioned they will be to leverage the chatbots of tomorrow to engage, connect with and hopefully delight customers.

  • http://www.abhisi.com Abhisi

    Great read. There is no denying that some sort of AI will be powering most chats in the not to distant future.

    • Kristi Colleran

      Agree! Considering the level of investment being made by companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple in AI it seems that we will be able to realize a more natural bot to human conversation. I think it is no longer a question of if, but when that not too distant future is!

  • CrowdedHead

    Great overview. Glad to hear this isn’t just voice tree 2.0 and that we’re not just automating our presence in messaging apps. Humans benefit from a truly human connection – that is why social is so important and with messaging it’s all about real interactions that are timely and instant. The term “chat bots” isn’t a very good one – it smells like automated service (“touch 1 if you want to order checks”) and we all know that those automated interfaces are still being worked out to be “more human” and to work effectively when there’s an exception or when tone, inference, sentiment or intent becomes tricky. I’ve been promised great voice recognition for years and I feel like chat-bots is really just in it’s infancy. Aren’t they just another way corporations can cut costs by automating human 2 human interactions? Your example of the New England Patriots is a good one. I’d like to see what the new Bank of America chatbot does and how it makes life easier, timely, and error-free. Perhaps the migration to messanger apps was to get away from advertising and the onslaught of marketers on social?

    • CrowdedHead

      Sorry forgot to ask, who builds the chatbots and offers this to companies as a service?

      • Kristi Colleran

        My company, Sciensio offers messaging and chatbot services. You can reach me at kcolleran@sciens.io if you would like to set-up a call for further discussion.

    • Kristi Colleran

      Companies do want to reduce their customer service spend because their customers are expecting more (like 24×7 service). Chatbots offer an opportunity to scale service by augmenting a human customer support team. They can be used as the first point of contact to handle basic questions and for triage. For example, the chatbot can capture the needed information to address an issue and schedule a time for a human agent to contact the customer. This frees up human agents to address more complex questions and issues. A chatbot is also well suited for answering customers’ frequently asked questions and they never tire of them so each customer gets the same high quality service. As the advances in deep learning are focused on customer service, I think the experience and capabilities will continue to improve yielding even higher levels of service at scale for lower costs.

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  • Rohit Akiwatkar

    Nice introduction to chatbot technology. Interesting to know CMI is covering one of the latest technologies!!
    To share my experience about conversational bots, we at Maruti Techlabs recently developed a web-based chatbot ‘Specter’ to assist marketing team in automating the lead qualification process. The chatbot asks a few questions from the user to understand the requirements, then it passes the information to the technical team to validate and qualify the lead. I believe chatbot technology is still in its infancy. It needs to incorporate Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to really understand the context and provide coherent response which is required in customer support and eCommerce chatbots.