Our exposure to chatbots is at an all-time high. From customer service to commerce to healthcare, chatbots are the fastest growing brand communication channel, thanks to their ability to handle issue resolution, remove friction in surfacing common information, and enable self-service to relieve human bottlenecks.
But the growing chatbot landscape shows signs of fracture. In a recent study, over half of consumers who use chatbots cite dissatisfaction due to the frustration caused by “inconsistent answers” across chat and human assistance, while ranking preference of digital service channels like social media, human chat, and even email over chatbots. A finer point still, 60% of consumers would still rather interact with a human than a brand’s chatbot because of the ability to solve more complex and personal problems. The irony is that a chatbot’s premise to exist is to offload human-to-human interactions while maintaining a “conversational” format;” at the very least they should decrease the volume that customer service representatives have to manage, and increase the overall efficiency of service. Identity crisis, online one.
The fact is, the existing landscape of chatbots still contribute real value to brands and their customers, but there’s a trove of untapped potential to nurture in this engagement channel by bringing conversational AI into the core customer experience. Beyond providing reactive service, chatbots should play a role in proactively building brand preference through more personal benefits. If a brand isn’t building meaningful relationships as a part of its loyalty strategy, consumers won’t stick around for very long. This begs the question, what does it look like to elevate chatbots as a core element of customer experience—one that is personal, assertive, and valuable across more domains, brands, and businesses? For some brands & bots, it will require a change in the way that elements of the customer experience are handled. To elevate chatbots is to transform their identity altogether; enter virtual assistants.
Virtual assistants are already highly visible in-market today as voice assistants, two and three-dimensional avatars on web and gaming platforms, and they also surface in chat mediums. But for virtual assistants in a chatbot modality, it’s important to distinguish between the two; virtual assistants are evolutions on the foundation laid by chatbots. So what makes them different? How can a brand take a successful but constrained chatbot and position it for the next evolution of assistance? With just two fundamental principles in mind, a chatbot can deliver on the promise of a dynamic new value exchange with their users.
Move from reactive support to proactive assistance
Over time, a conversation with a virtual assistant should evolve with each interaction and from data collected in physical and digital environments. By collecting data and understanding the behaviors of a user, a virtual assistant will then synthesize what it learns into a more anticipatory and personal interaction. You’ll see this through personalized recommendations around the brand’s services, or custom greetings and prompts around actions, or dates. In a financial assistant like Erica from Bank of America, the interactions are personalized when there are bills to pay, budget activity to check, and the insights delivered are personal to your spending activity. In chatbots, this behavior is typically not on display. Interactions are disjointed over time and even if the script is imbued with personality, each interaction will lack the actual knowledge from the end users’ previous interactions with the brand.
Said differently, we value the real-world relationships we build because of the equity built up over time. We don’t need to re-introduce ourselves to our human companions when we engage with them regularly. In this view, and staying in the world of personal finance, a chatbot can be seen as a virtual bank teller, having to state your business upon each visit to the bank—”what can I help you with today?—while a virtual assistant has the knowledge of your past behaviors and prior activity and knows you like a personal financial advisor, “I’ve prepared your mid-month budget insights, would you like to see them now?”
Design for experiences rather than customer service
When assessing the benefit provided by conversational experiences, there’s general agreement that chatbots are best suited for customer service. But virtual assistants should be able to service customer issues and augment the overall consumer experience. For an example of an effective but misnamed conversational agent (i.e., a “Virtual Assistant” that is actually a chatbot) we can look at UPS. This chatbot is primarily used for tracking a package and escalating to customer service if desired, and while it’s a notable improvement on the “web form,” it doesn’t provide the personalized support that a frequent user may expect, say, if they are a business owner who uses UPS regularly. In this manner, UPS’s bot could maintain its conversational structure but provide proactive customer experience improvements to improve the relationship between the business owner and the brand. Low barrier use cases could feature insights on past services (easily introduced from all the historical data collected), and promotional or predictive services that show an empathetic relationship with the business owner’s operations. On the flip side, in the course of using the Domino’s virtual assistant, “Dom,” to place an order, the agent is aware of data from your Pizza Profile, able to recommend menu coupons and ways to redeem points in the course of an order, creating a differentiated consumer experience than other brands in its category.
There’s a lot of room in today’s branded ecosystems for chatbots and virtual assistants to co-exist. But, as consumer expectations for their self-service technology channels evolve to desire more meaningful relationships, the evolution is going to be a necessary one for brands to consider, either to level up their chatbots, or develop a virtual assistant strategy altogether. For when a chatbot masquerades as a virtual assistant, it can have a damaging reputational effect on a user’s perception of what they can accomplish through the interaction with the bot, and negatively impact overall consumer sentiment of the brand.
Dale LaRue is a senior director at RAIN, leading strategic, creative and technical client engagements and spearheading agency-wide business development.