This content is part of the Essential Guide: Guide to AI in customer service using chatbots and NLP

Separating customer service chatbot hype from reality

Vendors claim consumers want self-service chatbots. Turns out they'd rather scrub toilets or go to the dentist than converse with customer service in general, bots included.


Most of us have yelled that in exasperation on the phone, trying to cut through an automated switchboard and get to an actual human. Well, at least I have. I've seared my vocal cords until my greyhounds ran behind the couch, shaking in fear. Maybe that last part doesn't happen to you, but you get the point.

The formal name for an automated switchboard is interactive voice response or IVR. These are the 1980s-era precursors to customer service chatbot. IVRs do create efficiencies for both call center agents and the customers they serve. In many organizations, they route requests to teams with specialized expertise and, in some cases -- such as checking a bank account balance or receiving flight status updates -- they can offer quicker self-service than humans.

But it's high-anxiety time when the voice recognition is off or if your voice is raging two octaves higher because it's the 19th call you've put in to the credit card company or because a persistent problem hasn't been resolved. Or you somehow got lost in the labyrinth of selections and can't find your way out and that representative never comes.

In those maddening instances, an IVR represents many things -- and poorly: the company, the brand, the pathetic customer service it engenders, and the lack of regard for the customer's time and whatever concern it was that led them there in the place.

In my own life, IVRs can represent an excuse to find a competing company with which to do business. Customer service chatbots are replacing IVRs as we do more business and service-seeking online. When they waste my time, bots increasingly invoke the same flight instincts that IVRs do.

Here come the chatbots

Customer service chatbots can represent your brand with smiling faces, logos, snappy dialogue and emojis through web, phone, social media and Chat channels. Vendors would have you believe their capabilities are limitless.

However, just like with IVRs, I have a hard time trusting these bots to solve my problems, find a human if my query is too complex and ultimately make me happy. That is, except when my problem can be solved with a simple answer, such as finding the URL for an instructional PDF or checking a package's shipping status.

Happy customer service chatbot
For now, keep a tight rein on your customer service chatbots representing your brand.

Dealing with a chatbot, to me, often feels like those 1980s computer text adventure games (anyone remember Zork?) It's a lot more fun trying to solve a Zork-esque puzzle, though, when it's for fun and the win doesn't involve getting an errant charge wiped off a credit card.

Most of the call center leaders SearchCRM talked to at the ICMI Contact Center Expo agree; they won't trust the good ratings their humans earn every day to dumb bot-proxies. These pros generally admire customer service chatbot technology and speak of its potential to solve customer problems -- at other companies' call centers; not at their own.

Companies that think they will save money and bandwidth with customer service chatbots because that's becoming standard might be making a bad bet. There's still room for improvement as this young technology grows up. Enabling technologies like natural language processing and AI will also evolve, making bots a little sharper. But, for now, don't believe the vendor hype.

Consumer survey reflects unhappy resignation

Turns out the ICMI folks and I are not alone in our distaste for automated customer service. That's whether it's via IVR, customer service chatbots or even live chat -- in which humans paste in canned answers that are oftentimes as unhelpful as they are off-putting -- as we try to steer the discussion back to the original problem that prompted the service contact.

The situation is so bad, according to 1,000 U.S. adults who responded to a survey conducted by Helpshift, that customers would rather scrub a toilet, go to the dentist or sit in traffic than call customer service. Why? Long wait and hold times, having to repeat the problem after being transferred, and IVR and communication breakdowns with offshore call centers. (Full disclosure: Helpshift asked me to contribute a question to the survey.)

The customer service platform vendor used the survey as research on where and how customer service chatbots fit into support team work. I should note the company is finding success, among other places, in phone apps for which zero support previously existed.

[Respondents] did indicate they're willing to give chatbots the benefit of the doubt -- as one person put it, 'before hanging up and writing a letter to the CEO.'

As I formulated my survey question, I wanted to know why people deal with chatbots at all. Is it because of resignation or desensitization to low-touch self-service, kind of like how we now bag our own groceries at the grocery store self-checkout because the lines with humans back up too long? So Helpshift added my question to the survey.

About one-third of the survey respondents (318) indicated that yes, they feel it's the only way to get help, coming in second place just behind I would not continue conversing at all (333). Third, however, were the 316 respondents who said their problems were simple enough to solve -- like changing a password, checking a bank balance and so on -- that it was worth continuing dialogue with a bot.

My favorite responses to the "why would you continue talking with a chatbot?" question were the responses under other, in which respondents were given a free-text field to enter their own reasons.

Among the 18 of those:

  • "To insult it."
  • "They're easier than people anyway."
  • "If I do have to call, at least this will keep me entertained while I wait."

To be fair, other free-text respondents did indicate they're willing to give chatbots the benefit of the doubt -- as one person put it, "before hanging up and writing a letter to the CEO."

Takeaways for vendors, call center executives

For customer service chatbot vendors, Helpshift's survey should be instructive. Aim low in what you're promising because consumers don't necessarily want to be routed through your technologies. Over-promising and under-delivering will get your chatbots unplugged faster than you can say "customer retention has disappeared."

For customer service leaders at companies like those we talked to at ICMI who are reticent to invest in and implement chatbots in their call streams, well, the survey looks like validation -- at least until the technology evolves to tackle more complex customer issues.

We know that customers aren't excited to talk to your call center human agents in the place. They're calling because they have a problem, and they aren't in the best mood to begin with. Keep that in mind when considering customer service chatbot setups. Because when a dumb or poorly programmed bot represents you, it might not do much to assuage those bad moods and build the positive customer experience we all want.

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