Should small businesses invest in chatbot technology now?

Chatbot concept. Man holding smartphone and using chatting.

As widely predicted, AI-powered chatbots are no longer exclusive to Fortune 500 companies. According to a recent Research and Markets study, the global chatbots market is projected to witness a compound annual growth rate of 32.78 per cent by 2023, reaching a total market size of US$895.27 million from US$163.34 million in 2017.

In 2018, many smaller organisations will start using chatbots to offload transactional requests. Still for many, the creation and deployment of chatbots is viewed as too costly and complex, and a large number of organisations are still struggling to deliver effective chatbot technologies. The recent criticism of Telstra’s Codi chatbot, which is making so many mistakes that customers have become frustrated with the service, shows that developing chatbot technology isn’t that easy.

But does that mean small businesses shouldn’t invest in this technology, or on the contrary, do they risk failure by being too cautious? No, and definitely yes.

The new reality: Chatbots officially open for business

In recent months, a slew of new ventures to the market, including NAB’s “virtual banker” and Progress NativeChat, represents a new era in chatbot technology, making it easy for customers to build and deploy AI-driven chatbots in as little as two weeks with reasonable investment.

Unlike previous chatbot technology, offerings such as NativeChat can be trained, using a set of goals, examples, and data from existing backend systems. This removes the need for developers to create and maintain complex decision trees for each bot conversation and allows customers to converse and transact in a natural way.

But while chatbot technology is now within reach, many are also blinded by the anticipation of super-knowledgeable, emotionally intelligent chatbots.

Don’t wait until Siri develops an EQ

When business owners and individuals realise that we’re not yet dealing with emotionally intelligent bots, they’re tempted to hold fire before jumping head first and making the investment.

But the current state of AI and chatbot technology in fact yields very good ROI for businesses that invest in what’s referred to as transactional chatbots. And this is especially true for SMEs which can see a quick and direct impact on their operations.

The difference between a knowledge bot (think Siri) and a transactional chatbot is that the latter is optimised to execute a limited amount of specialised processes that replace the need to talk to an expert.

Think of what a bank operator can do for you over the phone: verify your identity, block your stolen credit card, give you the working hours of nearby branches and confirm an outgoing transfer. The knowledge chatbot ideally supports thousands of processes like these, and in some cases is able to make decisions for you.

So, where should SMEs invest? Instead of completely replacing the need to hire an expert by substituting it with AI, business owners need to think about how they can optimise 70-80 per cent of the workload for some of their front-line employees by using transactional chatbots.

A good example of that is Bulgarian hospital Dr Shterev Hospital which used the NativeChat technology to halve the workload of its contact centre through the automation of repetitive tasks, giving the team more time to focus on high-touch customer engagement. The result – improved customer satisfaction ratings. Small businesses too should look at automating low-touch customer interaction, so employees can dedicate their time to where it truly matters.

In time, this investment will most likely pave the way for the dream of emotionally intelligent chatbots which will completely revolutionise business structures. For now, businesses are more than ready to rethink their service strategies with transactional chatbots in mind.

Hristo Borisov, Director of Product Management, Progress