As it appeared in the Daily Nation on August 21st 2018
Lucy Kiruthu

At a recent customer experience training, I asked the participants to draw a chatbot. Most participants had no idea what that was despite being in the customer service arena. Others had an idea but it was difficult to visualize a chatbot and draw it. Chatbots also referred to as bots are a computer program or software. Simple chatbots scan for key words and respond with programmed answers while more complex chatbots use artificial intelligence (AI). Chatbots are used to create responses that mimic a live conversation.

Today, although only a few companies are using chatbots, the knowhow on chatbots is making great inroads in customer experience. Chatbots are being widely used in responding to customer queries and offering support. Several companies globally and even locally have invested in chatbots that allow instant messaging and voice recognition. Chatbots have found use on platforms such as CRMs, apps, websites, WhatsApp, telegram, SMS, Facebook messenger among others. Times are changing as some tasks previously done by humans are being replaced by modern technology. I believe that chatbots are here to stay.

While most chatbots offer basic support, others give outcomes that improve the customer experience. I have interacted with the KLM verified WhatsApp business account chatbot, the Starbucks Barista app chatbot, the Safaricom telegram chatbot, the Cooperative bank telegram chatbot. For example, one can make a Starbucks voice or message order via the company’s app reducing their wait time. In addition, the Starbucks’ chatbot puts the customer’s order in memory making future orders easier. Most chatbots have resulted to positive experiences. Unfortunately, some especially those using basic technology have been disastrous as they have failed to give satisfactory responses.

When interactive voice response (IVR) was introduced, customers were not happy. Most customers preferred to speak to a live person. The real drawback with IVR was the time taken going through several prompts. However, chatbots seem to have a faster uptake possibly because they are able to offer personalized assistance instantly. Additionally, today’s customer is techie savvy and keen on self-service. It is likely that chatbots will penetrate much faster. A 2017 survey by Oracle found that 80 percent of the global companies are planning to use chatbots by 2020. Similarly, Gartner states that artificial intelligence will be a mainstream customer experience investment in coming years with many organisations using chatbots for customer support.

The customer experience community in Kenya is staying ahead on use of technology in customer experience. At a recent customer experience conference, the Safaricom Director, Customer Operations shared insights on the use of chatbots. She alluded to the reduction in number of phone calls because of use of alternative channels. The room was filled with amusement at the thought of not having to fret about a chatbot’s productivity or it attitude towards customers. It is likely that chatbots will cause the death of email and telephone-based customer interactions.

There is no doubt that chatbots are revolutionizing how companies interact with their customers. The internet and smart phone are at the centre of this revolution. In coming years, many smart companies in Kenya will be considering chatbots as a major investment to streamline customer interactions. As companies do so, they must focus on getting it right and avoid the pitfalls of good technology gone bad.

Lucy Kiruthu is a Management Consultant and Trainer connect via twitter @KiruthuLucy