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
Adboy Chat Assistants
Adboy is a small online advertising firm. Based on its own need for automation, Adboy developed a chatbot system for Facebook Messenger, and is now making it available to clients.
The firm claims to be “the first and only Australian company to make virtual assistants practical and available worldwide to SMBs”.
Adboy's virtual assistants appear to be more structured than most chatbots, as they handle multiple-choice situations by presenting the user with the acceptable responses in the form of buttons.
Applications are said to include ecommerce, lead generation and customer support.
Oracle Intelligent Bots
Intelligent Bots is part of Oracle Mobile Cloud, making it (relatively) simple for people to build chatbots, according to Oracle vice president of product management for Oracle Cloud Platform Siddhartha Agarwal.
A key feature of chatbot technology is that the use of AI allows a chatbot to learn about users' intent, says Agarwal.
In particular, this includes understanding context (a simple example is that if a user makes reference to a particular account, then subsequent questions will refer to that same account unless otherwise qualified), and having the capability to automate common actions without explicit human intervention. For example, once a chatbot has learned which types of expense account items are always approved by a manager, it can save time by only presenting the exceptions.
Intelligent Bots allows training from previous interactions, provides a number of preconfigured channels including Facebook Messenger and Slack, and integrates with the various backend systems offered by Oracle including ERP and approval management, he said. It also provides for connections with other systems via their APIs.
Progress NativeChat is a recently released product designed to help develop and deploy chatbots. An important feature is that it is designed to be trained with data from existing systems.
“NativeChat makes it easy to create chatbots on top of existing systems that interact with users in a natural way and improve contextual understanding, accuracy and forecasting in conversations,” says Progress chief technology officer Dmitri Tcherevik.
While it provides out-of-the-box integration with various other Progress products, NativeChat can be integrated into self-service web portals and mobile apps, and also with other systems that support REST APIs (a common way of connecting web-based applications and services).
According to the company, NativeChat can understand 72 human languages, and it can be up and running in as little as two weeks.
List Premier Education's ZenoBot isn't a chatbot in the conventional sense, because it is designed to be deployed on touchscreens. And instead of being faceless, a ZenoBot presents itself as an animated avatar.
The technology was developed for classroom use, and has now been developed to deliver adult training (such as health and safety at work) and to provide information in retail environments.
“A ZenoBot Avatar possesses AI allowing it to engage in basic conversations, perform searches and much more. Everyone is amazed at how effective and easy it is to deliver training with ZenoBot,” says List Premier founder Johann DeBeer.
“ZenoBot is now being rolled out across the world to help businesses deliver their training and education activities across a broad range of areas.
“We can see ZenoBot becoming a part of our everyday lives in Australia. Just imagine going into a Bunnings store and walking up to a large interactive screen and asking the Bunnings Avatar in any language what aisle the light bulbs are in and the Avatar responds immediately by telling you which aisle to go to.”
List Premier can create the content required by its customers, or train them to do it in-house – the company claims the software is very easy to use.
Prices start at $9.99 per month for a single avatar speaking one language.