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Could your next chit-chat be with a chatbot?

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We’ve all experienced the frustration: dialling call centres, waiting on line, listening to elevator music, having calls dropped, or patched through to other departments, only to finally speak to someone and then receive sketchy customer service, writes Dave Stevens, business development executive at Intervate, a T-Systems company.
Sometimes we’ll hop online, and trawl through pages of badly-organised ‘frequently asked questions’ buried within a company website. But, somehow, they just never seem to cater for our particular question.
Fortunately, there is a better option. The phenomenon of ‘chatbots’ is starting to take hold, and is fast becoming the primary way for us to interact with companies, whether we know it or not.
Chatbots can work via any text-based communication channel – such as SMS, instant messaging, chat windows on a website, via email, or any other platform that the company chooses. They rely on information libraries and sophisticated artificial intelligence, to ‘reply’ to customers and answer their queries. In time, they will also appear as voice-based systems as well.
It works in just the same way as instant messaging conversation with a human, except, in this case you’ll be talking to a bot.
Perhaps the biggest advantages to chatbots are that you get replies instantly. Within milliseconds, the bot can understand your question, analyse the underlying data in the libraries, and construct a text-based reply to you, in your native language. Think about how Google, for example, can search the entire internet of information, in less than a second. Bots operate at the same lightning speed.
Another major advantage is that they offer reliable, consistent responses. Once a bot has been ‘programmed’ to give customers the latest information on flights from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, it will always fetch the latest data, and return reliable results. Based on the series of interactions it has with users, and with new information that is fed into its algorithms, bots are effectively able to ‘learn’ new information, and continually improve their service.
But it doesn’t end there. As we gain greater levels of trust in bots, we may start asking them to do more than just serve us information. Imagine asking your bot to book and pay for flights, rather than simply giving you information about them? With appropriate security and privacy safeguards, we’ll all enjoy our own ‘personal digital assistants’ in the form of bots.
As a group of innovators, we were one of the first South African firms to start tinkering with chatbot technology. What’s emerged is an elegant chatbot service named Pipa, who helps staff members with general enquiries or frequently asked questions.
It may be an early foray into the future, and the technology is certainly not yet perfected, but chatbot technology is expected to become one of the most exciting forces in technology and business over the coming years. So, ditch the 08600 number, the elevator music, the endless website searches, and have a chat with your closest chatbot!