Article by Clayton Wehner, Digital Transformation Lead at Business SA

Have you ever spoken to a robot’ online? Or maybe you’ve spoken to somebody you suspected was a robot, but you weren’t quite sure? 

There’s actually a very good chance that you have conversed — either wittingly or unwittingly — with a robot online.

The age of conversational artificial intelligence (AI) and the chatbot’ is upon us. Whether we like it or not, our online conversations are increasingly being conducted with robots at the other end, rather than human beings.

In a lot of cases, that’s a good thing. Chatbot conversations provide consumers with immediate, real-time answers to their questions — far better than waiting in a long phone centre queue.

And there are benefits for businesses, too. Chatbots enable businesses to provide better customer service, to stay open 24/7, to reassign their staff to more productive duties, and to achieve internal cost efficiencies.

The chatbot stats

Chatbots are on the rise and the stats speak for themselves. Since 2019, the use of chatbots as a brand communication channel has increased by 92%.

In 2020, 24.9% of buyers used chatbots to communicate with businesses, up from 13% the year before.

By the end of this year, Gartner predicts that up to 70% of all interactions with millennial customers in certain industries will be handled by AI and chatbots.

Chatbots are a thing’ and it might be the right time for your business to start thinking about using this emerging technology.

A local case study — SA Health and Clevertar

The biggest reason consumers use chatbots is to get rapid answers to common questions. This highlights the main advantage that chatbot technology has over human-to-human interactions: faster response times.

This was the challenge that SA Health encountered at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — the intense public demand for information about ever-changing restrictions, testing locations and medical advice quickly outstripped the department’s human capabilities. How could SA Health satisfy the insatiable demand for information from the public?

SA Health turned to South Australian chatbot provider Clevertar to implement a chatbot for the SA Health website and, in a very short space of time, Zoe’ was born. Matt Francis is Clevertar’s Head of Product and Customer Experience and he has worked for the business since 2014. He explained to me how the Zoe’ project unfolded.

The rapid escalation of the COVID-19 situation meant that the introduction of Zoe’ to SA Health’s website was time-critical. We pulled some late nights to deliver a minimum viable bot’ within 7 days. From there, we adopted an Agile delivery methodology, with regular, incremental improvements to Zoe’ over the course of the pandemic. To date, we’ve done 70 releases of Zoe’, each time building on user analytics, feedback and enquiry data to improve the customer experience’.

Asked about Zoe’s personality, Matt explained that the customer is always encouraged to determine the chatbot’s name and to shape their persona.

Unlike other providers, Clevertar offers moving, talking chatbots with human-like characteristics. Our technology is based on humanising’ a virtual being and this is our point of difference. We take great care with the anthropomorphisation’ of our chatbots — that’s the attribution of human traits to something that isn’t human.’

There’s thought behind the name as well.

Zoe is not only easy to say and spell, but it’s the Greek version of the Hebrew name Eve’, which means life. The name Zoe was popular in early Christianity and was associated with eternal life — clearly a good name for a health service to adopt’, Matt explained.

Since COVID-19 first arrived on our shores, over 700,000 users have engaged with Zoe’. She has delivered the equivalent of 540 full days of continuous conversation with users — that’s conversation that would otherwise have taken place between two human beings, consuming valuable human resources within SA Health.

That’s the beauty of chatbots — they can take an incredible load, they can serve as your front line’ customer service triage function, and they never need to take a break!’, Matt explained.

Another bot that Clevertar built for the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2021 Census Claire’ — represented a perfect foil for the thousands and thousands of simultaneous customer service requests received on Census night. At her peak, Claire’ handled 300 conversations per minute with over one million interactions recorded in total from citizens all over Australia who had questions about filling out their Census forms.

Pros and cons of chatbots

Despite the growth in chatbot use, many people remain wary of interacting with them on the web, particularly those in older generations who haven’t taken to artificial intelligence quite like millenials and Gen Zs have.

We’re careful not to make people uncomfortable when dealing with our chatbots. There’s an unsettling feeling that many people experience when dealing with bots that closely resemble humans — it’s got a scientific name: the uncanny valley’. We deliberately take a Disney-like approach to bot design and give them oversized eyes so that people don’t get freaked out by the human likeness. If you’ve ever watched The Polar Express’ movie, you’ll know how unnerving it is to see a cartoon version of Tom Hanks — we want to try and avoid that situation’, Matt explained.

We also make sure that we declare the fact that it’s a chatbot up front so that people aren’t duped into thinking it’s a real person. And to counter scepticism about the usefulness of chatbots, we make sure that there are no closed doors’ — we always give an answer that we believe is suitable and provide pathways for the user if it’s not’.

In-built artificial intelligence and regular content training’ means that chatbots are able to learn from past interactions with customers.

The beauty of chatbots is that they get better over time. Every interaction is a chance to hone the system and improve the experience for the next customer. Over time, the system can handle more and more different variations of the same question — these are known as utterances’ in the chatbot world. The experience gets better and better as you go along’, Matt explained.

For what’s it’s worth, the younger generations don’t need convincing about chat tools and chatbots. Gen Zs and millenials typically eschew voice communication on their phones, opting instead for the more expedient social media and messaging tools, such as SMS, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat and Wechat. Using chatbots comes naturally to these generations.

Chatbot benefits for business

Chatbots offer clear benefits for consumers, but there are also significant benefits for businesses that adopt this nascent technology. Chatbots offer round-the-clock service 24/7, 365 days a year; they handle routine customer enquiries instantaneously; they provide an easily-accessible channel to engage with the business via the customer’s mobile phone; they enable businesses to redeploy internal resources that would otherwise deal with routine enquiries to more complex, more engaging duties; and they offer potential long-term resource cost savings.

In spite of the clear benefits, introducing chatbot technology in an organisation can be a touchy subject and it does require some serious change management’ thinking. Customer service employees are often wary of technology that they perceive may make their role redundant in the future (‘Am I going to be replaced by a bot??’). Chatbots represent a new, real-time customer service channel that is unfamiliar and daunting for some staff to come to grips with. When they’re first adopted, chatbots are often not integrated with existing internal customer service systems, which can create obstacles and internal friction.

Yes, some employees are suspicious of bots, but we suggest that they actually make jobs better for the staff, because staff hate doing the routine stuff that a chatbot can handle. There’s more job satisfaction to be had from the higher-order, more engaging tasks that chatbots can’t handle’, Matt explained. Chatbots allow you to deploy your staff elsewhere in the business for more productive outcomes’.

Ultimately, chatbots can handle a significant load and take the stress off the contact centre. If your business has a high throughput of customer enquiries, then a chatbot may very well be the tool you need to improve your overall customer experience.

Where to now for chatbots?

It’s onwards and upwards for Clevertar after their SA Health Zoe’ experience.

We’ve certainly seen an upswing in demand for chatbots since the onset of COVID-19’, Matt explained.

Clevertar now has fifteen staff, with our headquarters here in Adelaide and a sales office in Sydney. Apart from SA Health, we’ve built chatbots for SA Government’s Consumer and Business Services (‘Claire’), Wine Direct (‘Charli’), Australian Red Cross (‘Jamie’), and the Mate telco (‘Grace’), among others’.

So, are chatbots a fad or are they the future? All indications are that they’re here to stay. And if you operate a customer service function that regularly responds to frequently asked questions, then a chatbot might just be great addition to your business.

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