By Cassandra Balentine
Chatbots—also referred to as virtual assistants (VAs)—are transforming customer support across a variety of industries. Depending on the level of support needed, these technologies can answer simple questions 24/7 before being directed to a live support person, or utilize artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to field and respond to more questions without the need of a customer sales representative.
According to Grand View Research, Inc., the global chatbot market is expected to reach 1.25 billion USD by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 24.3 percent. The research firm expects the chatbot industry to witness significant growth over the forecast period as it enables enterprises to substantially reduce operating costs.
Innovations in AI and machine learning technologies improve the effectiveness and uses for chatbots. These technologies are a major market driver.
New technologies are designed to streamline processes and make it easier for everyone affected. The drive for more efficiency, effectiveness, and ease of use pushes the adoption of new technologies like chatbots and VAs.
“Consumers want things that are easier. The adoption of chatbots is being driven by how these new technologies are making traditional tasks easier, coupled with new and improved forms of engagement,” says Rutesh Shah, CEO/founder, InfoStretch.
“Organizations are looking for ways to easily give their customers the ability to converse and transact in a natural way, on the channel of their choice, without human interaction,” says Dmitri Tcherevik, CTO, Progress. He says the rise of chatbots solve a handful of pressing customer service challenges for organizations—such as freeing up overloaded call center employees to focus more on critical business needs, increased customer satisfaction, and reduction in overall cost.
Shah points to several specific drivers including productivity, entertainment value, social, and novelty/curiosity.
In terms of productivity, chatbots provide ease, speed, and convenience. Shah says they provide preliminary assistance and access to information, which saves money on resources.
They are also seen as something fun to use. “Some people use chatbots when bored to kill time,” shares Shah. “They are seen as a personal, human means of interaction that may have social value.”
The evolving customer experience, AI, and machine learning play a major role in the development and use of chatbots.
“Users and customers in this day and age have changing expectations in the ways in which they interact with organizations,” says Tcherevik. The days of phone trees and waiting on hold are archaic as customers not only expect, but demand 24/7, immediate responses to their questions.
AI and machine learning are able to affect how impactful bots are through their ability to allow the bot and the business to adapt as needed. “AI will enhance many areas, including issues of eliminating human bias from interactions—where natural language processing can widen the topic of conversation and a number of valid responses,” explains Shah.
Technology will help improve business performance for internal-facing bots, enhance the customer experience for clients or site visitors, and become more useful by being able to answer a wider range of specific questions and provide more information to users—advising more tailored responses to the customer’s needs by using deep machine learning to learn from their interactions.
Geography plays an important role in why chatbots are developed and what they are developed to do.
Tcherevik points out that in today’s world, technology is becoming more accessible daily and geography absolutely plays a role in the need for these solutions. “For a global enterprise, a chatbot that provides business benefits to them will ultimately help their customers around the globe. Allowing for 24/7 support that really works will establish a company as a digital leader and will help to increase loyalty from customers, no matter their geography. Gone are the days of call centers, customer support hours, and time-zone constrictions,” he says.
Types and Features
Several variations of chatbot technologies exist; some are standalone solutions while others integrate with messaging systems. They can be built with chatbot development kits, propriety offerings, or third-party solutions. Further differences like type—task or information oriented, or open or closed.
Shah defines a few primary models of chatbots available. Task-oriented chatbots are designed for dealing with specific scenarios, such as placing an order, scheduling an event, or helping with troubleshooting. Information-oriented chatbots are more focused on the generative aspect of the conversation—offering answers as creatively as possible, not repeating themselves, and keeping the conversation interesting for the person they are chatting with.
Chatbots are available to leverage all sorts of chat mediums, such as SMS texting, website chat windows, and social media messaging platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Tcherevik says there are two main types of bots—one that functions on a set of rules and one that uses more advanced aspects of machine learning. “If your bot is rules-based, it can only respond to specific commands and will only be as smart as you program it to be. If the bot utilizes machine learning, it has a brain of its own and continues to get smarter as it learns from more conversations.”
There are also open and closed domain variations. “Open domain bots are designed to retrieve all sorts of information for questions such as, what will the weather be like in three days. Closed domain agents—also known as domain specific—operate through information regarding a specific area of interest, aiming to provide answers for usually narrow scenarios, like offering guidance through a museum and providing specific types of information to the visitors,” shares Shah.
Pricing is generally dependent on the complexity of the interactions and channels that the bot is used on. Integration needs with current enterprise systems also factor into the investment cost.
“The chatbot space is still developing very quickly, and vendors are experimenting with different pricing models. There is no consistency,” comments Tcherevik. “Many vendors are pricing by the number of requests processed, some are pricing by the number of users reached. Some are trying outcome based pricing—for example percentage of amount saved. We are pricing by the number of chatbots deployed.”
A variety of chatbot solutions and services are available. InfoStretch and Progress detail their platforms below.
InfoStretch provides many types of chatbot solutions including those available on platforms like Skype, Slack, Assistant, and Facebook; as well as for website. Its Docubot product is designed for information mining. The company also provides chatbots within mobile applications, and voice bots.
The company’s target market is traditional enterprises and organizations that are putting a priority on their customers and digital transformation. “This is where these technologies are pivotal and where our focus is for banking/finance, healthcare, telecommunications, retail, and technology companies,” says Shah.
Shah says InfoStretch’s solutions are set apart from others due to its expertise in development, testing/integrations, operations, and data engineering. “This allows us to successfully achieve and accelerate business initiatives for our customers through AI-powered suites such as ASTUTE.”
According to Tcherevik, most chatbots that are developed today rely on fixed decision trees and predefined if-then-else logic to generate natural conversations with users. “This old-school technology is what makes the software complex and enforces the thinking that chatbots sound like answering machines.” Progress provides a chatbot solution called Progress NativeChat, which is an AI-driven platform for creating and deploying chatbots. NativeChat can transform customer service actions across multiple industries, including banking, healthcare, and insurance. What separates our product from outers is the use of CognitiveFlow—a technology that can be trained with goals, examples, and data from existing backend systems, similar to the process for training new customer service agents.”
Progress chatbot technology uses AI as the very core to ensure that the self-service chatbots are able to deliver a seamless experience to customers. “Chatbots like ours are leveraging the most promising aspects of AI and machine learning by allowing people to interact with software in their own way, instead of following a predefined flow set up for them by a developer. Smarter machines mean people will no longer be serving technology but rather the other way around,” comments Tcherevik.
A variety of other chatbot solutions are available.
ANBOTO Intelligent Chat is an intelligent online chat with semiautomatic response that increases the productivity of enterprises in customer experience management—customer experience management and customer service—defined as the perceptions and feelings generated by the accumulation of customer interactions with companies and their employees, channels, products, and services.
ANBOTO designs the interactions in order to increase the client’s expectations, and enhance their satisfaction and loyalty. Main features include natural language understanding, automatic language detection, understanding multiple questions in one sentence, ability to generate proactive natural language, voice, innovative image, continuous interaction with the user, concurrent feedback, multiple availability, and continuous customized attention.
Creative Virtual is a leader in self-service solutions that bring together humans and AI to enable anywhere, anytime customer and employee engagement. Global organizations rely on its V-Person technology to improve their support experience, reduce costs, increase sales, and build brand loyalty.
eGain Virtual Assistant is a lifelike, conversational virtual agent providing a unique, interactive, and personal way for users to get answers and assistance on your website, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It provides the frontline support so customer service staff can concentrate on more complex tasks. A website visitor simply chats with the VA or chatbot. The natural language processing technology embedded in the chat bot enables it to not only understand the words, but also the customer intent. The VA acts like a guide taking customers on a tour of the website, providing answers, and even helping in their shopping decisions. The eGain VA is designed to be smart enough to know when to escalate to a human agent. By providing timely and context-aware escalation to agents, it stops customers from having to repeat their query, greatly reducing customer frustration and agent anxiety.
Inbenta chatbots are able to answer questions, fill in forms, and help customers make transactions in a conversational way. It uses AI, natural language processing technology, and machine learning to understand exactly customer is asking, no matter if slang or jargon is used. At the heart of any ideal customer interaction are an intuitive conversation, a seamless purchasing experience and no wait times. The Inbenta Chatbot recognizes conversation context, uses webhooks to perform transactions, and is instantly available 24/7. The Inbenta Chatbot can uncover the intent behind each user’s question. Instead of a long and generic answer, the chatbot gives a quick and precise response creating an intelligent conversation with the customer.
Nuance’s VA, Nina, is an Intelligent Virtual Assistant, designed to deliver an intuitive, automated experience for all digital channels by engaging customers in natural conversations using voice or text. No matter if you want to add a VA to your website, app, or text messaging application, Nina offers a consistent experience in any digital channel. A familiar voice answers the request whether it’s typed into a computer, tapped on a screen, or spoken into a device.
The use and acceptance of chatbots among both enterprises and consumers is on the rise. These solutions close the gap between traditional customer service hours and agents and the customer demand for 24/7 access and communication. Depending on the business model, chatbots or VAs can serve a range of needs, but most importantly improve the customer experience and save money in customer service. As AI and machine learning technologies advance, the chatbots’ cognitive abilities continue to grow.
Aug2018, Software Magazine