Modern consumers expect to be able to engage with a business whenever they want, wherever they are, no matter the size of the business. Here, Bob Dearsley engages with the story.

This can put a lot of strain on a business – particularly a small or medium sized business – and manning a 24/7 response service is not feasible for most from a resource perspective.

However, artificial intelligence enabled technology – like chatbots – can plug this resource gap in a cost-effective manner and also increase a business’ chance of engagement and ultimately, sales.

As an example, 53 per cent of consumers are now more likely to shop with a business they can reach via a chat app, according to research by Facebook.

The true value of chatbots will be that they get ‘smarter’ the more they engages with questions and, presuming the platform has been properly programmed, it will become more proficient at dealing with customers.

As a chatbot engages with the same customer on multiple occasions, it will be able to learn the nuances of that customer’s behaviour and requirements, and could eventually be able to take over most enquiries – up to a point.

Human operators can never be removed from the equation entirely because there will always be the odd enquiry that requires a more complex response – which technology will not be able to resolve.

Chatbots and artificial intelligence will be more effective dealing with the high volume, simple enquiries, freeing up people to handle the more complicated or sensitive customer service requests.

In marketing, the potential for chatbots as an engagement tool on scale is already being recognised.

A more personalised experience

When it comes to chatbots in marketing and customer engagement, the key aspect of the technology is that the system is able to ‘learn’ from previous engagements and can use this to inform next steps, or even pre-empt what a customer might be looking for.

Eventually, chatbots will be able to provide the kind of insightful and personalised customer service that human operators would simply not be able to, at scale, and can offer the service 24/7.

Over time, they will also be able to deliver more relevant content and information for brands or products – from a commercial standpoint this could be up-selling and cross-selling in a conversational way – or engaging with customers in ways they have not experienced before.

A major test for the platforms will be when it comes to interacting with customers in the same way a human operator would with the famed ‘Turing test’ showing that chatbots are becoming more efficient at emulating human conversations.

Streamlining the sales funnel and handover process

It would be naïve to think that chatbots will not replace human operators on some scale.

Chatbots are, however, going to be more efficient in boosting productivity by taking over automated data collection and dealing with simpler enquiries, allowing humans to take on more complex cases, backed by better information.

Lead nurturing, for instance, can be a lengthy process and requires consistent and timely communication with a prospect which can easily fall through the gaps of a busy department.

Chatbots can take much of the heavy lifting out of this process by automating responses, and tailoring them to the specific needs or requirements of the prospect, based on the information entered into the system – both in the first instance and during on-going communication.

The key to this, will be to ensure any automated customer response platforms are programmed properly in the first instance as, while machines are less likely to make mistakes, they can be just as easily manipulated into going wrong.

For instance, it is not that long ago that Microsoft had to apologise after its Twitter chatbot ‘Tay’ was ‘taught’ by users to respond to enquiries by users using racist and inappropriate language.

Facebook also last year apparently shut down two AI robots after the pair started communicating in a language the programmers didn’t recognise.

Both of the instances demonstrate the importance of ensuring chatbots and AI platforms are developed carefully and with specific objectives in mind, rather than being rushed into a process as a means of being seen to be up-to-date and ‘cool’.

Ultimately, chatbots may still be in their relative infancy as a business tool, and more work needs to be done before they become completely accepted – or trusted – but the potential is undoubtedly there for this technology to revolutionise how businesses engage with consumers in the future and is something every marketer needs to keep a close eye on.

Bob Dearsley is CEO of The B2B Marketing Lab, the UK’s largest HubSpot partner