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What is a chatbot? The ultimate guide

Interactions with chatbots jumped 81 percent in 2020. But what, exactly, is a chatbot and how do chatbots work?

โดย Hannah Wren ตำแหน่ง Content Marketing Associate

เผยแพร่เมื่อ 22 ตุลาคม 2020
ปรับปรุงล่าสุดเมื่อ 4 มิถุนายน 2021

Messaging support has become a go-to for customers, and 74 percent who messaged with companies for the first time in 2020 plan to keep doing so, according to our 2021 Customer Experience Trends Report. As messaging rates have risen, so has the use of AI and automated chatbots. Interactions with automated bots jumped 81 percent in 2020, with customers using chatbots to do everything from checking if they have COVID-19 symptoms to finding the perfect lipstick color.

But what, exactly, is a chatbot? How do chatbots work? And will they steal customer service representatives’ jobs? We'll answer all your chatbot questions.

What is a chatbot?

A chatbot is a type of conversational AI that enables businesses to put a layer of automation or self-service in front of customers in a friendly and familiar way. And with companies increasingly adding messaging channels to provide faster resolutions and always-on support, bots have quickly become a key component of any messaging strategy. They can be deployed over any messaging app or channel and ensure customers get instant responses when an agent is busy helping other customers—or watching Bridgerton.

How do chatbots work, and more importantly, what can you do with them?

Bots use predefined conversation flows, natural language processing, and/or machine learning to interpret customer (or employee) requests.

A chatbot can work alongside a knowledge base. 60 percent of customers want to resolve as many issues as possible with a company’s online resource. Chatbots can recommend the right help center articles to answer FAQs outside of a help center, like on the checkout page of your website. If Bob is wondering about an airline’s cancelation policy before he books his flight to Bermuda Triangle, a bot can serve him the right information.

With access to business and customer data, chatbots can deliver personalized responses and automate cross-sell and upsell activities. A bot can tell Bob which flights are available on his new travel date and whether he’s eligible for a discount if he upgrades to first class.

A chatbot can also help customers complete tasks and convert customers within the conversation. Bob could reserve a window seat, buy his upgraded ticket, and request a double rum and coke for the flight right inside the chat. (Flying makes Bob uneasy.)

Does that mean chatbots are going to steal customer service jobs?

Chatbots are most successful when they work together with human agents. Bots aren’t meant to solve every issue: 56% of customers say bots are helpful for simple requests. And when bots take these kinds of repetitive cases off a support team’s plate, agents can prioritize customer questions that need the human touch.

Chatbots can also gather information like a customer’s order number or city upfront, before an agent takes over, so they have the context they need to provide quick, personalized service. This is also a huge time-saver for agents.

It’s always important to have a way for customers to escalate a conversation to a real person. When a customer has a valid reason to speak to a human agent, but there’s no option to do so, it’s a frustrating experience that can lead to negative CSAT, or worse, churn.

Chatbot use case

what is a chatbot

Fintiba offers online solutions for people who want to work or study in Germany. Human agents are critical for resolving high-empathy issues, like when a customer’s visa gets declined.

Chatbots help streamline this process. Every conversation goes through Fintiba's virtual agent first before going to a human agent. That takes the pressure off the support team, so they have the time they need to solve problems chatbots can't handle.

For example, when customers want to change their phone number, they complete a form and send a selfie inside the chat. An agent can then jump in with the process already started.

Fintiba’s chatbot solution, Solvemate, integrates with its customer service software. The bot is able to route chats with context and conversation history to live agents.

When chatbots enhance the agent experience—instead of replacing it—it’s a better experience for everyone.

To learn more about how agents and chatbots can work together, read our guide.

Benefits of chatbots (that go beyond efficiency and cost savings)

The benefits of chatbots go beyond “increasing efficiency” and “cutting costs”—those are table stakes. Bots are at their most powerful when humans can work in tandem with them to solve key business challenges.

Convenient one-on-one service, 24/7

Being constantly connected has increased customers’ desire for instant support. Customers today expect help as soon as they need it on channels convenient for them. Over 40 percent of customers think 24/7 real-time support is a top factor of good service, according to our Trends Report.

In deploying a chatbot across customers’ preferred channels, businesses ensure customers get seamless, always-on support. If Sally’s sushi delivery is late, she can text a chatbot and get an update on her California roll in real-time. If Rachel lost her credit card, a virtual assistant can help her freeze it, so she doesn’t have to worry about mysterious charges.

Businesses can scale quickly

In our trends report, we found that 42 percent of customer service leaders expect customer requests to grow, yet only 36 percent can expand headcount. This gap represents a sweet spot where a chatbot can help. Chatbots can act like extra support reps, triaging simple questions and basic requests.

Consider Spartan Race, which deployed a Zendesk chatbot to help its small team of agents tackle spikes in customer requests during races. Spartan Race has seen a 9.5 percent decrease in chat volume, extending its team’s live chat availability by three hours every day.

France’s national rail carrier, SNCF, needed to provide quick support to on-the-go passengers using its mobile app. But it couldn’t hire another team of agents to deal with the influx of requests. Mindsay's Zendesk integration helped SNCF take the pressure off its overwhelmed agents. They deployed a chatbot to help find travel itineraries, provide departure information, and send alerts. And the integration led to a 50 percent reduction in incoming support tickets.

Chatbots give support teams the ability to scale without having to hire more staff.

More opportunities for conversion

Customer service bots can boost conversions with smarter self-service.

A chatbot can enable customers to self-serve outside of a help center, like on a checkout page, with knowledge tailored to their context.

  • Dollar Shave Club uses Answer Bot to connect visitors to help center articles and answer questions—before a customer abandons their cart.
  • Freshly deflects around 2,200 tickets each week. Its chatbot collects website visitors’ email addresses before they ask a question, which captures both context for agents and leads for marketers.
  • Wavy uses a chatbot to help with prospecting and lead generation. It's bot is the reason why Wavy’s conversion rate is at +25 percent.

Chatbots can also convert customers within the message chat by providing ecommerce opportunities for immediate action. Messaging types like carousels, forms, and picklists let customers book a hotel reservation or purchase a pair of shoes—all within the chat.

Chatbots can also automate cross-sell and upsell activities. With the right context, a bot can check if a consumer is eligible for a discount on a hotel room with a view or ask if he wants a pair of socks to match his new Nikes.

What chatbot platform is right for you?

Today there are many chatbot examples. Chatbots can be deployed across any messaging channel. But chatbots are relatively new to customer service, and companies are still figuring out how they fit within their support strategy. That can make it tough to know how to find the right chatbot solution for your business. Answering these questions will help you find a solution that best fits your support team’s needs.

1. What problem are you looking to solve—and what resources do you need to solve it?

For starters, you need to decide what use cases to automate. Decide based on the problem you need to solve and what resources you have to solve it.

Some companies may need a bot to deliver help center articles across a variety of channels and capture basic customer context. Other companies may need bots for personalized requests, like telling a customer how much data her iPhone used this month or recommending a new plan based on usage.

Offering personalized service with a chatbot requires more resources and a bigger budget. You’ll need a chatbot solution that integrates with customer service software and other relevant systems.

2. Is your chatbot flexible enough to work across different channels?

Customers expect to get support over their preferred touchpoints—whether they’re interacting with a human or a bot.

Research tells us customers want to interact with brands on channels they use with friends and family. Messaging and social media channels, like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter Direct Message, LINE, Apple Business Chat (which integrates with iMessage), and SMS lend themselves to more convenient conversational experiences. For instance, Samsung Australia created a Twitter chatbot to give customers personalized TV recommendations.

It's important for your chatbot to work across all these different channels. With a chatbot platform that's flexible, you can connect your bot to any channel, without any heavy lifting. For example, Zendesk lets a business build once and deploy anywhere. In other words, you can use the best version of a rich bot experience across all your channels, even those with no native bot support.

3. What level of context will your chatbot need?

More context leads to better chatbots—and more personalized conversations.

Freelance platform Upwork’s chatbot displays proactive CTAs tailored to what a user is trying to accomplish, like what help center article they’re viewing.

Upwork’s bot also uses contextual metadata, like a user’s name for a personalized greeting. It knows if a user is a client or a freelancer, tailoring quick replies accordingly. It also integrates with our Support Suite, so agents have the context they need to handle every escalated chat.

Beyond passing on relevant information to agents, bots can also pass on context to a CRM or other software. This enables things like:

  • Understanding that Rose has a necklace in her cart and sending a message to a marketing automation tool, so she receives better-targeted email offers
  • Knowing that IT buyer Bob signed up for a demo and qualifying him as a lead in a sales CRM

Bots can read context coming from a conversation, too. With sentiment analysis, a virtual agent can understand when a customer is frustrated and react accordingly.

4. How will you manage conversations between chatbots and agents?

Businesses need tools to both deploy chatbot conversations on the front end and manage them on the back end. This ensures agents can understand the intent behind every conversation and streamline hand-offs between agents and chatbots.

With the help of triggers, automation, and workflows, support teams can centrally define engagement rules and track, manage, and prioritize chatbot interactions at scale. This opens up possibilities, like automatically assigning:

  • A high priority to VIP customers, so a bot can route them to a live salesperson for help—with conversation history
  • A repeat dissatisfied customer to a specialized customer support team by looking at context, sentiment, and intent

To effectively control bot interactions, a business will need to integrate its chatbot solution with its customer service software.

The agent workspace in Zendesk provides agents with a real-time, conversation-focused interface to seamlessly manage conversations between agents and bots.

The takeaway?

The most successful companies are ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting bots: High-performing SMBs and mid-sized companies are 3x more likely to use Zendesk’s own AI-powered bot and enterprise companies are 4x more likely, according to our Trends Report. When a business leverages and combines the strengths of both bots and humans it can create the kinds of modern customer experiences that drive loyalty—and improve the bottom line.

Make all your chatbot dreams come true

Whether you’re just getting started with chatbots or looking to scale, Zendesk can help.