Know your chatbots from your virtual assistants and why you should care
As customer expectations drive demand for round-the-clock service and near-immediate response times, businesses have understandably sought to automate their customer communication offerings wherever possible, writes Omar Javaid, the chief product officer at Vonage.
Bots, artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual assistants can all be great for providing this level of responsive customer service. There is also evidence that chatbots are fast becoming the preferred method of contact for some consumers, but only in certain situations. When it comes to finding the answers to complex questions or making significant purchases, people still prefer people.
For this reason, it is important to integrate automated communication with the wider customer communication strategy. Key to this is understanding how to differentiate chatbots from AIs and virtual assistants in order to apply these technologies in a way that benefits the customer.
In general terms, a bot is a digital tool that runs tasks in response to triggers. For communication, this definition arguably covers chatbots, virtual assistants, and more, which can be confusing as by that definition, powerful AI-based customer service assistants fall into the same category as simple rule-based chatbots.
In their most basic form, chatbots use simple natural language processing to parse sentences and pick out keywords, then respond in a predefined way to certain trigger words or phrases. The more advanced versions may also draw on a broader context such as past conversations and customer records.
AIs: algorithmic learners
The crucial difference between chatbots and AIs is that an AI programme can learn – and is thus capable of changing the response it provides even if the input appears to remain the same. For example, if given the query, “Tell me movie times for this evening,” a standard chatbot will do just that and no more. An AI-enabled bot, on the other hand, is capable of changing its response as new information comes to light. So, if it learns that a particular user prefers thrillers, as opposed to romantic comedies, it may decide to suggest those first.
In its simplest terms, AI is a collection of algorithms that learn for themselves. They are trained via networks on thousands of voice and text samples in multiple languages. They then convert voice to text and then text into meaning that software can act upon.
The virtual assistant harnesses some of the technology and features outlined above but takes things one step further. Not limited to the voice-activated versions we are familiar with from our home speakers, a virtual assistant is any contextually-aware tapestry of services that responds to natural language commands. Assistants interpret or map commands to process work, offer replies, and perform tasks.
Not only can they perform work on the user’s behalf – create appointments, set reminders and turn off lights – but they also learn as they go. A chatbot is, most often, limited in scope; whereas a virtual assistant brings together huge numbers of services and bundles them into an autodidactic, natural language-powered interface.
Getting the mixed environment right
These technologies all have a role to play in the customer service environment. Arguably, they’re all part of the same story and should be indistinguishable as far as the customer is concerned, but it is important to understand the limitations of each.
If deploying a chatbot, for instance, does it require an exact text match before it can offer a response or is it capable of parsing natural language? If so, can it handle unusual customer requests, or does it get stuck on anything more complex than “show me my billing statement?” Perhaps crucially, can the bot hand off a conversation to a human when necessary?
For virtual assistants, it makes sense to think beyond smart device platforms and consider how these technologies integrate with existing customer communication channels. Smart businesses will look beyond third-party platforms and design virtual assistants that will span every single customer contact point.
AIs, meanwhile, are more of an enabler. They have a voracious appetite for data and can be used by mature customer service organizations to provide valuable analysis of their extensive customer communication data. They also enable natural communication and help decipher the messy context that can accompany human requests.
People still need people
Sophisticated as this group of technologies are, it’s important to remember that they are not a replacement for human interaction. If a customer thinks they’re speaking to a human, but they’re actually dealing with a bot, this is likely to cause issues.
We are still in a period of establishing cultural norms around interacting with non-human agents. As a result, any implementation should still include the “speak to a representative” option. There’s no denying that, when frustrated, people still prefer to speak to other people who empathise with their concerns rather than uncaring machines that have been built to mimic empathy.