If you’re in business, hopefully, you have at least some customers. If they are limited in number, perhaps they know they can contact you anytime and you’ll be there at the end of the phone or on the other side of their email or chat messages, advising them on whatever it is they’re having an issue with.
Most, probably all, companies – no matter how many customers they have – would like to be able to offer this kind of, some would say, “old fashioned” customer service – attentive, immediately available and always helpful.
However, in today’s global, 24-hour, 365-days-a-year, online business environment, having a human customer services person always on call may not be possible.
That is unless you’re a Google or some such super-mega-oversized global, interstellar outfit with more employees than the population of a small nation.
For most businesses, a very useful tool is the real-time chat bots that can be integrated into a website or a smartphone app, and can perform some basic customer service functions.
Quite a lot of software developers now provide such chatbots, and they’re becoming increasingly sophisticated.
Not only are chatbots themselves becoming smarter, the way businesses are using them is becoming more effective.
Among the chatbot companies we found with a quick Google universe search were:
This list is just a small, random selection and is not presented in any particular order.
Of course, most businesses would like to offer direct connection to a member of staff, but when you’ve got tens of thousands or more visitors to your website and other various channels, even a small percentage of them making preliminary inquiries about possibly becoming a customer can overwhelm you.
This is where a chatbot can help answer those frequently asked questions for which in the past you may have just created a FAQs page.
A FAQs pages is probably still a good idea, but some people do talk to chatbots whereas they may not know how to find your FAQs, or have time to look for it.
A chatbot often pops up at websites as soon as you visit, so it is always available. And it can be integrated with the human element of your customer service offering.
Once the chatbot has established some sort of connection, greeted them and perhaps answered one or two questions, it can pass the potential or actual customer to whoever passes for a real human employee at your company.
The other advantage of text chat, in particular, is that whereas a human customer service operative can reasonably be expected to deal with one or two phone calls at a time, with text chat, they can probably manage several simultaneously.
Personal shopping assistant
Flubit is an online store that claims to be cheaper than Amazon, which, incidentally, is so large now that’s expanding into space.
Flubit uses a live chat system on its website.
In comments to EM360º, the chief operating officer of Flubit.com, Steph Fiala, who is definitely human by most accounts, says: “Helping customers in real time or as close to as possible is nearly unavoidable in retail. Customers not only call and email in, but will often contact your Facebook or Twitter pages – so even if you use these channels for marketing purposes only they will soon by customers seeking answers quickly.”
Fiala says the crucial advantage of a chatbot is that it enables businesses to engage people who are actively looking to buy something online.
“The main benefits of using technology that allows you to communicate real-time with your clients means that they can get their questions answered sooner,” says Fiala.
“At the beginning of the sales funnels, this is great, as you want to be talking to potential customers when they are searching for solutions and are most engaged – not 24hrs after they have made an initial inquiry.
“In retail, talking to your customers before they buy means that you can offer them recommendations for products and personalise your answers to their specific needs.”
EM360º visited Flubit’s website and had a chat with the chatbot, which passed us on to the human customer services person, or “adviser”, as the company calls them. And we must say it’s a much more pleasant way to shop at a website – like having a personal shopper at your service. It’s something Amazon does not offer.
“I believe very few businesses actually manage to have continuous live-chat and thus constantly improving the experience for customers seeking answers when live chat is not available is a must,” says Fiala.
“Most live-chat enabled website technologies are able to re-direct your customers to your FAQ in the absence of a sales or customer support representative, for this reason, it’s vital that you keep your FAQ’s up to date and helpful for customers.”
Fiala adds: “Many customers will not engage in live-chats with you until they have exhausted all other options to find the information for themselves, thus taking the learnings from the sort of questions you do get asked and creating content around them can benefit all customers in the future.
“Answers to questions, guides, content, reviews, social media pages all hold vital information about your business and should all be readily available when your real-time live-chat functionality is not enabled.
“Live-chat functions enabled by Zendesk, for example, automatically fall back on your FAQ’s in the absence of an advisor to pick up a conversation with a client or customer. So when shopping around for live-chats ensure that they have a similar fall back mechanism in place – I believe most do.”
There were a few of other companies which gave EM360º their view of chatbots and provided an insight into how they use them – two were accountancy-related software developers, one was an online property portal, and one was soft drinks company.
But before we get onto those, an interesting insight into the chatbots themselves was provided by a company called LivePerson, a developer of chatbots, which describes itself as a “messaging solutions company”.
LivePerson is clearly doing well – its clients include many household names, such as Royal Bank of Scotland, Vodafone, EE, L’Oreal and T-Mobile.
The company says it uses machine learning and other artificial intelligence techniques to improve communications between companies and consumers.
Rurik Bradbury, head of research and communications at LivePerson, says real-time communication with customers is important in an age when everyone wants everything and they want it now.
Bradbury says: “More than ever, people want instant answers and swift replies, so messaging apps and live online messaging services are on the rise as they allow consumers to interact with customer service teams in real time and whenever best suits them.
“Messaging is convenient and private, yet has an informality that allows for an instant or asynchronous reply. It’s no wonder that messaging apps are changing the way consumers prefer to communicate with brands.”
Bradbury points out that many people use the phone, or social media such as Twitter and Facebook, to communicate with companies, albeit often quite reluctantly.
He says: “Consumers don’t want to communicate on social, where a message could get lost in a sea of comments, or spend hours on hold to 0800 numbers. In fact, they probably don’t want to have to make a call at all.
“To further improve customer service around the clock, many organisations are now implementing bots into their real-time care and digital strategies – RBS Assist is a recent high-profile example.”
Nothing, however, is flawless, and live chat functions can probably fail, and the very thought they will fail at a very busy time probably stresses out business managers.
Like most other technologies, chatbots are becoming more stable and capable, but Bradbury “careful implementation” is key.
Bradbury says: “A live chat function, particularly one powered by bots, requires careful implementation.
“One of the biggest barriers that early bots had is that they were running natively on a separate platform that didn’t allow for a human to intervene if the bot failed.
f“For bots and humans to work seamlessly together, both need to exist on the same software platform, with the same metrics running for both, to judge effectiveness, escalate queries to human agents when needed, and so on.
“The thing to note here is that bots are being integrated to assist agents, not replace them.
“This division of labour is what we’re calling a ‘tango’: human and bots passing conversations back and forth based on the complexity of the task and the needs of the consumer.
“Consumers’ main priority is to get accurate answers quickly. If a messaging bot were just as accurate as a human customer care agent, a majority of global consumers (55 per cent) would actually prefer interacting with a bot over a human, according to a recent survey from LivePerson.”
Some would say that it’s a sad indictment of humanity that most humans would prefer to speak to a bot, but there you go.
Settled and counting your money, and then having a drink
Settled is an online platform for buying and selling homes, connecting buyers and sellers on what the company describes as “a seamless journey”.
Settled describes its application of real-time customer interaction as being of “paramount” importance to its business, enabling it to avoid missing important messages from its customers.
Dean Hume, chief technology officer at Settled, says: “Real-time is paramount for Settled’s Hub – or the user dashboard, where buyers and sellers can easily see the status of their listings, chat with interested buyers and sellers, sign up for legals, mortgages and much more.
“Real-time enables us to deliver a highly engaging experience – imagine you were selling your home and you missed an important message from a potential buyer – that would be awful.”
Xero is a company perhaps many people will have heard of. It provides accounting software used by millions of businesses.
Xero uses real-time communication systems for a variety of reasons and recently launched something called Xero Discuss.
Damon Anderson, director, and partner at Xero says: “It’s now the norm to arrange plans with your family on Whatsapp.
“There’s absolutely no reason why businesses shouldn’t also use live chats in this way to work together. When it comes to accounting and bookkeeping, live chats can add huge value when doing things like invoicing and consolidating payments.
“For example, at Xerocon we announced the launch of Xero Discuss, an innovative new feature that allows accountants and bookkeepers to discuss financial details about a business directly with the client in real time through live chat.
“This removes the need for lengthy email chains or potential miscommunication about your data. It also makes it easier to answer questions and avoid potential errors, improving the reliability and accuracy of financial information and making business decisions right the first time. You can ask questions about a specific contact, bill, invoice, purchase order or bank transaction, and get instant support from your advisor.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than not having a clear overview of all of your business’ information. That’s when live chat can really come into its own.
“Rather than having to wait hours, or even days for clarification, you have complete control.
“Another feature we’re developing at Xero to give back the control is Xero HQ Ask. Using Ask, accountants can compose and initiate information requests directly from within Xero HQ. These requests are emailed to their client who then securely logs into Xero to respond and attach any pertinent documents. Advisors can then view responses, send reminders and monitor the progress of their requests all within one dashboard.
“With shared access to this type of real-time data, teams can collaborate much better. They’ll have access to the most recent info and will no longer be faced with the thankless task of exporting data and/or emailing it to someone else. Long, complicated email chains can be a headache, so why wouldn’t anyone want to cut them out?”
Pandle is another supplier of bookkeeping software. Hosted in the cloud, its software is particularly aimed at the self-employed and small business.
Pandle says it gets more than 400 chats per month and answers each chat within 23 seconds during business hours, and within 40 seconds out of hours.
Lee Murphy, managing director of Pandle, says having real-time communications is “hugely beneficial”.
Murphy says: “Live chat enables customers to connect with Pandle instantly, which can be hugely beneficial for selling as they get real-time answers to their questions while they are in the sales process and thinking about buying. This can be the difference between a sale or missed opportunity for us.
“When dealing with support, our advisors can deal with three or four chats at the same time which is a more efficient use of their time. If those same customers called instead of contacting Pandle on live chat, then they would have to be dealt with one at a time.
“It also allows us to much more easily point customers to relevant support articles if the query is simple, and we can point to sales information to answer questions from prospects so tackling queries in much more detail than we could over a live chat.
“In terms of a contingency, we find that on the rare occasions the chat does not work then customers will email or call.”
For thirsty Polar Krush customers who might encounter a problem with one of the company’s drinks dispensing machines, the company has installed what it calls a “Remote Kare SIM card” into each of its machines.
The company has been investing heavily in digitalising its entire operations and the end result is now when a machine needs attention, a customer may not even need to describe the problem – the machine itself can relay the information in real time to Polar Krush headquarters.
Paul Goldfinch, managing director at Polar Krush says: “Our Remote Kare system ensures that we can pro-actively keep our customers happy, rather than reacting to machines breaking down.
“Our engineers can plan their journeys and their time much more accurately and spend their time making sure our customers are being looked after, which is a much better use of their talent and time.”
Customers can, of course, still call Polar Krush, but when you have a system in which your product is telling you in real time how it’s performing, it enables you to operate completely differently.
Maybe it’s you as the company who will be calling your customers to say the machine is sending you data which indicate it needs some maintenance or something, and you can arrange a time to attend to it.
This sort of real-time internet of things network is increasingly being used in the industrial sector.
In the past, a customer would have had to call the machine supplier and say the machine needs fixing.
This would start a process of first diagnosing the fault and then figuring out how to correct it.
Those two stages are effectively eliminated, with the machine itself telling whoever is connected to it exactly what is going on and what it needs.
This sort of system is, of course, not possible in every business, but if it’s true that people prefer to communicate with bots, it’s likely that the principle will spread to many more sectors.