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Have We Learnt to Love Chatbots?

Have We Learnt to Love Chatbots?

By Dr Elaine Garcia, Head of Academics at InteractivePro. Elaine is also a lecturer with the London School of Business and Finance.

Without question the pandemic has had a significant impact on us all and the way in which we communicate, work and manage our daily lives. For many of us, needing to contact service providers such as mobile phone companies, utility providers and banks has become a process of long waits for an operator to become available or simply a message telling you no one is available to take your call. In an age where instantaneous responses are expected due to social media and electronic communication, this has become frustrating for the consumer.

For many companies, the fact that most employees have had to work from home during the last year, along with the difficulties people have had when trying to also look after children at home or falling ill with COVID themselves, have all resulted in a lack of available customer support staff to maintain usual levels of service. Whilst many companies have therefore asked customers to only contact in an emergency, others have been recruiting or promoting an army of customer service representatives in the form of AI chatbots.

Whilst historically chatbots have been thought of as a nuisance on the Internet (and to some extent are still considered to be the case), the development of AI is enabling chatbots to be able to do much more than they have been able to before. Through the development of natural language processing and machine learning chatbots are now able to respond to a much wider range of questions, phrasing and nuances in human language than ever before. They are also able to learn from the experiences they have had previously interacting with customers and build upon this knowledge to respond correctly to different queries in the future.

Within the banking sector, chatbots are now being seen as one of a range of different fintech that are enabling consumers to be able to access information and undertake simple tasks without needing to go into branch or contact a member of staff via the telephone. For example, a request for a bank balance, transfer of money or list of current direct debits can all be quite easily achieved by today’s AI driven chatbots. By enabling chatbots to be able to complete these tasks this results in phone lines remaining open for more complex queries that customers may have alongside those customers who may be more vulnerable.

Whilst chatbots are therefore helping customers and businesses to be able to answer simple questions there are a number of drawbacks related to their use. Firstly, chatbots are not well equipped to deal with complex queries or requests. This can mean that customers can become quickly frustrated when they are not able to resolve their query quickly. The nature of chatbots also can result in customers being sent around a cycle of questions which do not provide the answer they need and feeling as though the customer service of the company is poor and unhelpful.

Whilst natural language processing has advanced significantly in recent years, there are also significant improvements that need to be made before customers may feel that they are talking to a truly intelligent bot. Customers are currently very easily able to detect if they are speaking to a chatbot rather than a human and can feel cheated if the chatbot does not present itself clearly as a virtual being. This issue can be further compounded by the fact that language continues to evolve and change all the time whilst terms and phrases are likely to be specific to the type of industry and purpose the bot is being used for. This therefore results, not only for the customer to be made clearly aware they are talking to a bot, but also in the need for continual investment, upgrade and development needed when managing such a service.

Whilst we have therefore seen a rising acceptance of the use of chatbots, particularly thanks in part to the work of big tech virtual assistants, we are still a long way from being able to consider chatbots to be sentient beings which can assist customers seamlessly alongside human customer service agents.

The pandemic has certainly provided an opportunity for chatbots to be able to start to offer some simple and quick forms of customer service, but it is important to remember the limitations of such technology. As we emerge from the pandemic there is therefore an opportunity to continue to use this virtual army to be able to support customers, but it is important to ensure that contacting a real person is always an option too.

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