It's no secret that a lot of millennials prefer to type than talk, and are more comfortable interacting with companies through a screen than on a telephone. As a result, chatbot technology is increasingly becoming regarded as a necessary part of a reseller's business. Recently Emma de Sousa, UK boss at Insight, announced that the channel giant would be introducing its chatbot in EMEA after seeing success in North America. But it is not just firms of this size that are utilising chatbots.
Paul Sweeney, head of marketing at Lan3, said the Oxford-based MSP utilised the technology into its business about a year ago as a way to meet new customers in a place where the customer is "comfortable".
"Most businesses have realised that the traditional ways of marketing and selling to end users have become increasingly difficult. People don't really answer the phone anymore and aren't particularly receptive to outbound messaging and marketing," he said.
"[I read] some research online that said 90 per cent of the buyer's journey is now done online. If that research is being done online then I think all organisations need to look at how they can interact with buyers where they are doing all their research online."
Sweeney said that of Lan3's two primary routes to market, chatbots form a "big part" of incoming leads. He claims that people in general are "switching off" more and more from traditional marketing activities such as emails and cold-calling, and that the MSP has to meet its buyers in a way that is comfortable to them.
"The power in the buying process has shifted away from the seller to the buyer. They hold all the power now so we need to meet them where they're comfortable having a chat. Which is typically online," said Sweeney.
Although chatbots are generally associated with consumer-facing industries such as retail, more B2B firms are also getting in on the act. MSP Amicus ITS is currently "dipping its toes" into the potential of the technology, according to its marketing manager Lindsay Burden. She said that in her experience and those of the executives attending conferences and in conversations, there is a definite move towards incorporating chatbots into businesses.
The MSP's bot, "Ami", is being developed to sit on the front end of the website and deal with general enquiries and direct the user to the appropriate department in the company. Burden (pictured) doesn't believe it is a "must-have" yet but said it is an experiment that could yield future fruit.
"[Chatbots are] incredibly successful in the retail business and highly deliverable there, but from the services perspective, it's a highly technical project, because you have to be clearer and map much more carefully what you're trying to provide for the service, ie what exactly it is supposed to do for the business," she said.
"It's not an absolute must but it is part of our curiosity of technology and part of that mandate to keep abreast with change."
Chris Dunning, founder of MSP Tech Quarters, said his company has begun the process of implementing AI to assist its helpdesk, by providing short video clips to help resolve issues they may encounter.
He said that the technology has been designed to react to four personality types, using vernacular corresponding to each type. "It's all designed so it's easy to use. Depending on the type of user that it is interfacing with, it will respond with different vernacular. For example, if it's talking to a technical person, it cuts to the chase, whereas if it is talking to a salesperson, it might be more gregarious," he explained.
Although Tech Quarters' chatbot "Cosmo" is currently being used internally, Dunning does not rule out the possibility of rolling it out into other markets.
"There are different markets that we could sell this technology into. For example, if you're working at a helpdesk here and you're an apprentice or front-liner and you want to know how to do a certain thing and an error comes up, you can type it into Cosmo and it will say ‘Watch this 10-second video'. It gets teams of engineers up to speed on tech really quickly," he said.
"If that dictates that you've got that first-line workforce that can support that, then it's not a big leap to think of how many helpdesks out there - including our own - need quick and easy training on something."
Dunning, who also founded training service 365 Cloud Academy, believes that this technology will increasingly become part of day-to-day business, but said that it is as much of a cultural change as it is a technological one for organisations .
"Digital transformation is a fantastic phrase, but what does it mean? [Companies] have to embrace the technology. And that's a cultural change as much as it is a technology change. Culturally, people want to see a return on their investment and that means their bosses might be saying they want [IT engineers] to adopt this new technology and the engineer might blow it off. But [it would give] them 10-second training on video and really make them more productive with the technology that's rolled out," he said.
"People's attention spans mean they don't want to be hanging around and want to learn quickly. What we want to do is take over the way people are trained. I firmly believe that just-in-time training [learning as you go] is the way forward."
As chatbot technology gains momentum in channel businesses, it is important to make it as human as possible, so that end users feel as satisfied with their interactions with the artificial intelligence as they would be with a human being. At least that's according to Stuart Dorman, CIO at contact centre VAR Sabio (pictured), who said that conversational flow is "key" to successful implementation of chatbots.
"Almost regardless of which technical platform you use - and there isn't a huge amount between them from what we've seen - it's about how you construct a conversation, the nuances of the way you ask a question and phrase things and how you respond. That's key to these type of applications being successful," he said.
Sabio develops chatbot technology for B2C websites, where it answers questions, deflects calls from contact centres and carries out basic tasks. Dorman believes that understanding human phrasings and the "art of conversation" is instrumental in its success.
However, he warns against confusing chatbots with virtual embedded assistants (VEA).
"We're focused on trying to make sure that a much broader set of customers can have meaningful interactions with VEA across the much broader set of questions and capabilities and processes," he said.
"For me, that's the difference between a chatbot, which is focused on a very singular task, versus a VEA, which has a much broader set of capabilities that works across a broader set of platforms across the web, and is capable of having much richer conversations across those platforms."
"I look at it as taking on someone new into your organisation. For the first month or so they'll probably be able to do a few things, but need to be coached and trained in order to be more productive and fully understand the language that customers use," Stuart Dorman, Sabio
Amicus' Burden believes that it is important to be "transparent" with end users interacting with chatbots that they are dealing with a robot and not an actual person. "Everything we've learned from our research and feedback is very clear: it's a robot, not a person," she said, adding that it is important for service providers to have as many options open as possible for users to communicate with them.
"Technology should be there as a welcome assistant but shouldn't at any point put a barrier in the way of the user. I think there are a lot of companies that are doing the adoption and pushing it down where that is the only route in," she said.
"I always think you want to keep lots of options in your toolkit for users. If you're an MSP, service is your industry and you have to be flexible and agile to respond to the needs of users. This is just an example of where I think there is a trend…but not to the exclusion of humanity in customer service and assisting user enquiries in all capacities."
Dorman said that Sabio's customers have seen quick results after installing chatbot technology and believes that this technology will become incorporated wholesale into business structures.
"Customers have seen immediate benefits of all the implementations we have put on so far, within weeks of them going live. I look at it as taking on someone new into your organisation. For the first month or so they'll probably be able to do a few things, but need to be coached and trained in order to be more productive and fully understand the language that customers use.
"If you look forward to the next three to five years, I see most interactions with organisations being fronted by AI to some extent, whether it be though an app, through a website or through a voice call. I think it will personalise the experience to users being driven by this conversational tech right at the front of the customer journey."
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