Just as email had a significant hand in the death of the telephone call, chatbots have now started to take over email’s spotlight, particularly when it comes to customer support. Chatbots are swallowing up more and more service requests, and reducing the need for email exchanges. So, is it time for email to hand over its crown to the chatbots, and let them handle the bulk of customer service too? Howard Williams, marketing director at Parker Software, investigates.

Death of customer email

At its conception, email was amazing. They were exciting to receive, and marked a new era of electronic communication. Today however, email has become tediously familiar.

The sheer volume of emails we receive per day means that any former novelty has quickly worn off. No one has the time to trawl through their bulging inbox, and email admin has become a daily chore. For businesses, that means that email has become an increasingly difficult customer service channel to manage.

Emails sit in overflowing inboxes, customers wait days on end for responses, and – despite all the email management tools we use – customer queries can still slip through the net. So, businesses have started to rely on other communication channels to meet customer needs.

We’ve seen social media become a key customer service player, and live chat software has become a welcome addition to the omni-channel mix.

Now, chatbots have entered the scene – and many predict that they will muscle out competing channels.It’s all in the timing

Customers are getting used to real-time responses. After all, they’ve got digital assistants that live in their smartphones, they’ve got store offers pinging through to their devices the moment they park outside, and they’ve got live news alerts on the topics that matter most to them.

In terms of customer service, this means that patience is wearing thin. Consumers get slick, quick experiences with the technology they use at home, and they expect the same from your brand. Why should they wait hours or even days for an email response?

This newly acquired taste for on-the-spot support has driven demand for chat as a real-time support channel. In fact, 37 per cent of consumers state that they use live chat more now than they did 12 months previously, and 48 per cent would rather connect with a company via live chat than any other means of contact.

But even live chat channels have their limitations. Customers may have to sit in a chat queue to be connected to an agent, or find chat offline altogether if no agents are available. This, then, is where chatbots find their place to shine.Rise of chatbotsDue to their round-the-clock availability, more and more businesses are turning to chatbots to extend their support offering. Chatbots can offer what no other channel can: instant, relevant, 24/7 interactivity.

They may not (yet) be capable of handling complex queries, but chatbots can easily fill the demand for quick answers to simple customer questions. They’re great for FAQs and for immediate online engagement, and can plug the service gap out of office hours.

Let’s say a visitor to a restaurant website wants to find out if a menu option is gluten-free during a midnight browsing session. They don’t want to go to the effort of finding your email address, typing out an email and waiting for you to get back to them. (They’re not that interested, frankly.)

Telephone and live chat options are both ruled out due to the late hour. A chatbot, on the other hand, is right there for the visitor, and able to answer their easy question right away.Room to grow

That’s not to say that chatbots always get it right – far from it. Chatbots are young, and they haven’t matured as a service channel. But just as children grow up fast, the development of chatbots is accelerating daily.

Chatbots will soon be capable of more advanced conversations with customers, powered by AI and natural language processing. When this shift happens, there will be even less need for customers to rely on slow, inconvenient email conversations for their service needs.

The tides are already turning. By 2020, over 80 per cent of businesses are expected to have some sort of chatbot automation implemented, and a full 96 per cent of businesses believe chatbots are here to stay.The autumn days of emailEmail is far from being dead and buried. As a channel, it’s not even its winter days of decline. But, as technology advances and customer expectations evolve, the dependence on email will inevitably diminish.

There will always be a need for email, and it’s difficult to foresee an age when it won’t be widely used. Its day in the sun, however, is over. The new dawn of chatbots is breaking.

Howard Williams works in customer experience at Parker Software. He leads the marketing activities of Parker Software’s global customer team, with a focus on the consumer, their experience, and how it can be continually improved