It doesn’t seem all that long ago that artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots were a new, futuristic-seeming technology, with analysts trying to predict how they might be used. Now you can hardly go onto a website without encountering one.

By Brent Haumann, MD of Striata Africa and Byron Wolff, digital product manager at Blue Turtle Technologies

But there’s a big difference between simply having a chatbot (sometimes referred to as a virtual assistant) versus making them a successful part of your customer communication strategy.

The latter proves successful when you achieve a tipping point of customer adoption and engagement. But getting to this point has proven more difficult than expected.

Just exposing a chatbot via your website or app, regardless of how powerful it may be, does not guarantee that customers will use it. Intentionally driving adoption and positioning the chatbot for maximum convenience are critical steps for meeting your adoption targets. Integrating your chatbot into key digital communications creates a symbiotic relationship between these channels that provides a new, highly-convenient entry point for customers.

The chatbot scenario

As anyone who spends a lot of time online has probably realised, chatbots have multiple applications, from marketing and payments to processing, and service. While service has taken the lion’s share of the market to date, the other applications for chatbots will likely only grow in the future.

In fact, research from Insider Intelligence predicts that consumer retail spend via chatbots worldwide will reach $142-billion – up from just $2.8-billion in 2019. It also shows that nearly 40% of internet users worldwide prefer interacting with chatbots. That number will likely only continue to grow in the future as the tech improves over time.

Given the importance of speaking to customers about their preferred channels, it therefore makes sense for organisations across a spread of industries to further invest in chatbots.

Achieving symbiosis

If companies are to do so however, it’s important to realise that chatbots shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for other forms of customer communication. Instead, they should form part of a symbiotic relationship with all of the organisation’s existing customer communication channels.

That means a chatbot shouldn’t just sit on a website or app, but also integrate into email and social media. It’s even possible to embed chatbots into a digital bill or statement, allowing customers to make queries and resolve issues without having to inconveniently break out of the channel that the customer is already engaged in. This will not only improve the customer’s experience and increase chatbot adoption rates, but it will also chalk up a credit in the “Cool Innovation” box.

That level of customer-centricity is what should be at the heart of chatbot adoption. The symbiosis between digital channels and chatbots should always be customer-driven and there because customers want the choice.

Additionally, exposing the same chatbot via multiple digital channels (Web, App, Digital communication) helps to thread a consistent customer experience across these related channels.

Choosing the right bot

None of the above matter if you don’t make use of the right chatbot technology, and working with the right partner is critical. We chatted to our partners at Blue Turtle for their input and expertise on how to choose the right chatbot technology.

Chatbot technology ranges from very basic to advanced and is highly dependent on the application, use cases, frequency, and complexity of its use. Decision-tree-type chatbots place a great emphasis on keywords and rules and can be great to enable a structured process or journey via a conversational interface.

A potential downside to this form of bot is the fact that it relies heavily on more direct and precise requests, and any deviation from the “norm” or the trained model can cause an illogical or nil-response. Furthermore, interactions are typically limited to 1-question-1-response, and follow-up questions or requests are not possible given that “conversations” lack context.

More advanced chatbots make use of conversational AI engines and algorithms and machine learning to enable a more free-flowing conversation with a user. This can then, as an example, be bundled with biometric verification and authentication solutions, document capture and robotic process automation (RPA) solutions to allow organisations the ability to onboard customers completely digitally and with minimal friction.

The most advanced chatbots allow customers to conduct transaction searches and fulfil transaction instructions, with some even offering advisory such as financial goal-setting and spend tracking (including graphical illustrations) based on learned interactions and user behaviour.

In addition, it is paramount that organisations realise that even the best chatbots cannot handle and contain all interactions. There will always be situations where the bot is unable to decipher a user’s intent, where the bot understands the intent but has not yet been trained to respond accordingly, or where the interaction requires human intervention. Examples of this might include sensitive situations such as issues of fraud, or complex opportunities for cross-sell or up-sell. A best practice remains to have the capability to hand over these conversations to live agents, and omnichannel chatbot solutions should have this capability.

Working together for the customer

The ideal digital strategy recognises that each digital channel has its strengths and weaknesses and that there is no “one channel to rule them all”. New digital channels are introduced over time to fill specific gaps in the digital flow, but ultimately the best strategy is one that leverages the right channel for the right job and manages to build a symbiotic relationship across all.