Building a Better Chatbot

By John Patrick Pullen



To look at the layer of dust that's accumulated on your Amazon Echo speaker, you might think that chatbot technology has been around for a while. But driving everything from Amazon's voice-activated assistant Alexa to the bots bundled into Facebook, conversational interfaces have become familiar fast, and are still an emerging technology.

According to a recent study by Juniper Research, chatbots driven by artificial intelligence will redefine customer service by 2022, when they are estimated to save companies more than $8 billion per year. According to the research, that shift will represent a total makeover of how businesses function in retail, e-commerce, banking, and healthcare. So bots — like the smartphone apps that came before them, and the social networks developed prior to that — are the next wave of tech, and smart money is already investing in them.

For marketers who don't have a bot in the works yet, it's natural to panic and think they're behind the game. But with market leaders Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple pushing out standards and offering up development kits, now is actually the right time to get started. Derived from early movers and already-established veterans of the emergent space, these best practices can help marketers chart a chatbot course for their companies.


1.Tackle the Why First

Vince Lynch, CEO at Los Angeles-based artificial intelligence agency IV.AI, has seen this sort of hype before. It begins when there's a new technology and every company wants to harness it, but nobody really knows why. "I think the 'why' part is something that should be tackled first," he says.

According to Lynch, bots work best for conducting a conversation with a customer or user. "They're a conversational interface that allows you to speak to a person in a one-to-one fashion, in a linear way," he says. "That's nice because you can take someone through a journey of information at their own pace and in a way that they're used to communicating with other people."

In other words, customer service is the killer application for this technology — and, so far, users agree. In a recent survey by Liveperson, two-thirds of respondents reported using a bot for customer service in the last year. At 30 percent, the next closest reason was for fun. But whatever reason a company has for deploying chat tech, it needs to be a simple one. "If you can't summarize the purpose of the bot in one sentence, you shouldn't do it," Lynch says.


2.Plan Ahead

While chatbots may seem like a fun, complimentary piece to the customer service mix, if marketers treat them like a toy they'll only miss out on their tremendous upside. Take, for example, Subway, which recently launched a bot within Facebook's Messenger app. The bot, which walks customers through the sandwich-making process much in the same way one would experience it in the restaurant, balances the convenience of a messaging app experience with the customization of ordering a sandwich at the counter.

The chatbot came out before Subway unveiled a brand transformation and a new app. The chatbot's voice, a little bolder and more fun, is reflective of Subway's forthcoming tone. Both the chatbot and the app share an underlying dataset, which will make the company's online ordering smarter and more personalized.

"All of these new user interfaces tie into an e-commerce engine in the background, but it's just the start," says Carman Wenkoff, Subway's chief information and chief digital officer. "They're all leveraging the same capabilities of remote ordering, but in whatever digital interface is most convenient for the customers."


3.Don't Just Chat with Your Bot — Listen

While the customer service savings that chatbots are poised to provide could be substantial, the ability for this technology to accrue rich customer data and enhance the shopping experience may be even more valuable. Just like Subway is linking its chatbots with other touchpoints through its e-commerce engine, Aeromexico has made available to its bot a massive dataset that includes telephone calls, customer service text messages, and even Facebook conversations, says the airline's VP of digital innovation Brian Gross. All of this data was fed into an AI "brain," which Aeromexico enlisted IV.AI and to build. The result has been a hit with its customers.

"That is the true, new generation of AI," Gross says. It's not just about plugging in keywords like "luggage," and providing a canned reply. "It's looking at all of the different weird and wonderful ways people can ask questions. They might start by telling you a story about their mother, but there's going to be elements in there that the computer will recognize are tied to a certain resolution," he says.

IV.AI's Lynch concurs. "Most chatbots work best when you have some memory of who the users are and what they've done," he says.


4.Set a Foundation for Conversation

Another early question on marketers' minds is on what platform they should deploy this AI-backed tech. The easy answer to this is wherever their customers are most likely to be found. Both Subway and Aeromexico built their bots to work with Facebook Messenger, but for different reasons. Subway was looking for the biggest bang for its buck. And with 1.2 billion worldwide users and Mastercard-integrated bots, Facebook's standalone messaging app was a no-brainer way for the company to reach its customers.

Aeromexico also built its bot in Messenger, basically because Facebook asked them to. Last summer, in gearing up for this year's Facebook developer's conference, the social network was keen to get a Mexican company to develop a bot, so $10,000 and one month later, Aerobot was born.

To be clear, says Gross, Messenger is not the most popular messaging platform south of the border. That distinction belongs to WhatsApp, another messaging app that Facebook owns. "WhatsApp is where our customers are — it's the most popular messaging software in the world," Gross says. "You go to WhatsApp for absolutely everything in Mexico." However, Facebook hasn't yet rolled out bots to WhatsApp, so for now Messenger is the only sandbox marketers can play in.

Still, other apps and services may be a better fit for a company than Messenger. For instance, Kik is great for reaching young people, while WeChat is the behemoth in China, and Telegram is the go-to messaging service in Russia. B-to-B firms may want to look into Slack integrations, while Amazon Alexa is the dominant in-home AI — for now at least. With Google refining its Google Home device and Apple bringing its new Apple HomePod to market in December, there's sure to be competition. That's why bot-makers are best advised to set a solid foundation of sharable data and flexible APIs that can let companies pivot to the best platform for their customers, as soon as they arise.


5.Feed Off the Feedback

Like any conversation, the interactions taking place with chatbots are always evolving and need to be continually evaluated, not just to ensure the system is working well, but that it's reaching its potential. People — customers — are the ultimate quality assurance, and they will say how they want to use a brand's conversational interface.

But beware asking customers for their thoughts on this new space. "When you ask your typical audience what this should look like, they won't be able to give very good feedback," Wenkoff says. While people know what websites and apps look like and how they perform, they aren't as familiar with what a bot is, so the typical user can't give great articulate criticism yet.

"They need to touch and feel this thing — that's what we've seen," Wenkoff says. "So getting out prototypes and wireframes and educating your stakeholders to give you feedback is critical …. You have to plan on having more iterative cycles than a lot of other product lifecycles and builds in other areas."

Gross agrees. In fact, he says Aeromexico regroups every three to six months to analyze the performance and purpose of its tech.

But forward-leaning postures like these shouldn't scare companies away from chatbots, Lynch says.

As a brand, this is a good jumping off point to test the water while people are playing, and it's still something that's taking shape, he says, adding that in two years, it won't be acceptable to not have a conversational interface communicating with customers.

"Everybody should be playing in this space, because it's the future," Lynch says. "There isn't going to be another space after this — there isn't going to be another AI. This is the final thing that happens … there is no stopping it. It's the future."



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