Forrester has predicted that this is the year “the backlash against chatbots will begin”, but you could say that it has already begun.

Headlines painting chatbots as a disappointment, and articles highlighting the funniest chatbot fails are easy to find, yet implementation isn’t slowing down. Despite early missteps, brands are eager to learn how to get it right because the upside is considerable: scalable, 24/7 customer service and a modernised, accessible experience.

So, how can companies capitalise on all that chatbots and AI have to offer while ensuring that they adhere to their core customer experience values? The key is to understand what’s keeping customers from having positive experiences with chatbots in the first place.

There are essentially two main obstacles to chatbot success: failing to define the scope of what a bot is expected to do, and striking a balance between bots and human agents. If companies want to succeed where others are failing, they must address these two key areas.

Defining scope and communicating functionality

Bots often fail because of poor design and a lack of defined scope. In order to have a successful, well-received chatbot, companies need to have a clear purpose in mind for a bot, understand what that role entails and then ensure the bot is equipped to execute.

Internally, companies must effectively plan and map their bot’s content and then make sure that externally, customers understand what the chatbot can do – especially if it has limited functionality. A bot should introduce itself and give customers a rundown of its functions so customers understand its capabilities. By giving users clear instructions on how to interact with a bot, companies can keep their customers on track and asking appropriate questions. 

If companies clearly communicate what a bot is capable of and equip it accordingly, escalation to a human agent is needed less frequently, leaving agents available to handle more complicated queries that require a human touch.

Striking the balance between bots and human agents

Even with a well-defined scope, bots can’t stand in for a human in every scenario, and inevitably a chatbot will be asked to do something beyond its capabilities. A primary reason why customers find chatbots to be barriers – rather than gateways – to easy communication is a lack of clear and effective escalation from chatbot to human agent.

We’ve all experienced an annoying phone menu that didn’t offer the option we were looking for and found ourselves repeating the phrase “speak with a human!” until at long last, we were connected with an operator who could help us in a way the automated system could not.

But solving this problem effectively isn’t as simple as including a “chat with an agent” option. While that might seem like an easy fix, it will likely result in too many chats escalating to agents and compromise the goal of automating a meaningful portion of frontline customer service.

The unpredictability of customer interactions makes it impossible to design a frustration-proof bot, but allowing customers to chat with an agent whenever they want isn’t the answer. Chatbot developers need to give brands the tools they need to add a layer of intelligence to the bot-agent relationship.

Bots need to know when to seek help from a human agent – for instance when a customer starts to get frustrated (detectable via sentiment analysis) or when a conversation starts to veer into uncharted territory (e.g. repeated attempts at asking the same question).

Once agents are notified, they can keep tabs on the conversation and take it over if necessary. This way, brands can have confidence that important conversations are routed to agents, and those that aren’t are being handled comfortably by the bot. 

Chatbots have a bad reputation due to poor design and lack of intelligent escalation, not because the technology doesn’t work. If companies get these aspects of chatbots right, they can prevent backlash against their bot. Scoping bots correctly and implementing an escalation process that provides a positive customer experience will help brands avoid frustrating customers while maximising the ROI on their chatbot investment – and those are outcomes that help everyone win.

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