With employees telecommuting and staff numbers depleted due to self-isolation, chatbots have emerged as a key support system to contact centers and HR teams. The technology deals with first-line inquiries, providing automated answers powered by artificial intelligence. This frees up teams to tackle more complex questions and keeps information up to date. The latter is extremely important in a pandemic where information and advice is changing fast.
There are essentially two breeds of chatbot. Firstly, simple chatbots that provide quick, uncomplicated answers to common questions by searching words and phrases. Secondly, sophisticated chatbots that mine data that they are fed to provide dynamic responses.
Regardless of breed, chatbots have proved their worth during the pandemic. They have enabled HR and customer service departments to engage with employees and consumers 24/7 and avoid lengthy wait times for straightforward queries. Chatbots are here to stay, and we will see smarter, more responsive chatbots appearing, exploiting more sophisticated AI.
"As a short-term response to the COVID-19 crisis, AI can play a crucial part in automating processes and limiting human involvement to a necessary minimum. In the longer term, we might observe an increase in AI adoption for companies that otherwise wouldn't consider it, both for competitive and practical reasons,” explains Petr Vojtisek, Research Analyst at IDC Customer Insights & Analysis.
Solving the Q&A conundrum
Orange was quick to recognize that the pandemic would leave call centers and HR departments battling to deal with inquiries. Orange, together with its subsidiary Business & Decision, has developed an AI-based chatbot to deal with this very issue.
The bot, which can be plugged into any website, is regularly updated with public data feeds that reflect what the organization wants to communicate to employees and customers.
The chatbot was designed to answer 80% of frequently asked questions. If the chatbot does not have the answer for the query, the inquiry is immediately re-routed to a human. It is already live in the public and financial services sectors.
Chatbots supporting a new way of working
Post-pandemic, the workplace will be a very different place. It will be sometime before many are back behind their office desks. Others will remain homeworkers.
Moving forward, chatbots can help HR departments in the recruitment and on-boarding processes, for example, answering frequently asked questions at any time. Of course, chatbots will not replace the human touch in HR. On the contrary. They will enable HR teams to focus far more on complex resourcing issues in companies and better assist employees in their career paths.
Customer service for a digitized future
The pandemic has highlighted the fact that consumers want better, faster customer service. Customers won’t tolerate long wait times, and many are willing to jump brand if they don’t get want they want.
In a future where rapid change and disruption are likely to become the norm, self-service tools like chatbots are key to freeing up agents for more complex interactions. Many of these agents will be, for the foreseeable future, working from home.
Chatbots will sit alongside messenger, emails and human agents, for example, to provide a far more personalized omnichannel experience. Gartner predicts that by 2022, 70% of customer interactions will be made up of emerging technologies such as machine-learning applications and chatbots, up from just 15% in 2018.
Understanding how these different channels work together will be critical in delivering a personalized experience, according to Gartner. The analyst firm sees a multichannel engagement center as a way of providing a single source of truth about customer behaviors.
Chatbots will take on a bigger role
The pandemic has shown organizations that employees and consumers are willing to use chatbots. These automated technologies have, after all, enabled them to access information even when operations are at a near standstill. They have, for example, been a natural choice for getting general health information out to the public.
It is difficult to say what the new normal will look like yet, but people are likely to communicate more. The strength of chatbots during the pandemic will undoubtedly make organizations re-think their communications strategies and accelerate the development of more intelligent chatbot technologies.
Jan has been writing about technology for over 22 years for magazines and web sites, including ComputerActive, IQ magazine and Signum. She has been a business correspondent on ComputerWorld in Sydney and covered the channel for Ziff-Davis in New York.