Even small businesses can benefit from the power of AI to improve customer support or reduce staff workloads.
Online chat has become a very common channel for human-to-human conversations – think of the success of Facebook Messenger, Skype, WhatsApp and others, or the widespread use of live chat on websites for customer support.
Increasingly, however, at the other end of a chat on a website or even a Facebook message is a computer program – a chatbot. For organisations with dedicated customer service staff, chatbots are being used to reduce the workload on those teams.
For smaller businesses, chatbots offer an opportunity to potentially compete with large companies by offering improved customer online support.
So how do chatbots work and what are the traps?
First, a chatbot program needs to understand natural language queries. And second, chatbots are implemented with some type of artificial intelligence (AI) technology or machine learning, so they can be trained to recognise the underlying question regardless of how it is phrased, and then return the correct information.
Even so, if a chatbot is to be accepted by customers, it has to know when to hand over to a human agent. That was something Telstra's Codi chatbot didn't seem to be able to manage, resulting in unhappy customers.
While learning from interactions is an important characteristic of a chatbot, another problem can occur if that learning is unsupervised. The poster child for this issue is Microsoft's Tay, which picked up “conspiracy theories, racist views and sexist remarks”. Its successor, Zo, also picked up some curious verbal habits after being exposed to the public.
Bear in mind also that to build the chatbot, you’ll generally need to outsource to a chatbot provider or developer. We’d also suggest that before considering a relatively advanced tool such as this, it’s important to get your business’s digital fundamentals right – and we’ve previously published small business guides on website design and hosting, search engine optimisation, social media and email marketing, as well as the basics of digital transformation and logistics and delivery.
Still, given a chatbot’s potential benefits, it may be worth exploring. Here are a few providers that can bring the power of AI to small and mid-sized businesses.
Next: four chatbot providers compared