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Consumers Becoming More Tolerant of Chatbots for Certain Tasks

By Jack M. Germain E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
Jan 15, 2021 4:00 AM PT
Consumers using chatbot apps

If you want to smooth over irate clients and offer more efficient customer services, consider conversational bots instead of a roomful of human company reps. Chatbots could be a better solution to engaging clients and relating to customers.

According to Myplanet CEO Jason Cottrell, chatbots will transform the way businesses schedule appointments, consumers check their bank accounts, and shoppers even just order a pizza. But just how accepting consumers will get with chatbots is a subject of intensive research as marketers seek the best paths to integrate chatbots into the business process.

Chatbots are projected to be a $1.3 billion market by 2024. These conversational software applications, powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and integrated into e-commerce and customer-facing websites, have the potential for improving information gathering and customer service tasks, as well as providing better tools for handling e-commerce and customer relations management.

Researchers see consumers' comfort levels with a variety of chatbot technologies softening towards customer service, scheduling, banking, and therapy. But consumer responses are still less than warmly welcoming all that chatbots might offer.

Consumers prefer using chatbots for simple tasks such as scheduling appointments or customer service. However, when it comes to using chatbots for personal tasks such as therapy or banking, consumers were significantly more uncomfortable. For example, customer service chatbots had a 33 percent comfort level compared to banking chatbots with an 18 percent comfort level.

If nothing else wins over consumers to use chatbots to conduct business, their convenience and efficiency might well succeed. For example, rather than waiting on hold for a call center agent to pick up the call, chatbots are quicker and easier to use, offered Beerud Sheth, CEO of Gupshup.

"Chatbots provide instant responses to user queries. This is especially important for simple tasks that chatbots can resolve adequately and quickly," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Generational Factors of Acceptance

Though chatbot usage by businesses is still in the early days, adoption rates, especially in the U.S. and Europe, portend continuing advances. In addition, tech industry trends and efforts are helping to drive chatbot development and adoption, according to Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"Broadly speaking, access to affordable AI technologies like machine learning is helping to speed chatbot evolution. More specifically, solutions such as the Power Virtual Agents that Microsoft recently introduced provide the tools that organizations require to develop chatbots that meet their discrete business needs," he told the E-Commerce Times.

It is worth noting that the success of chatbots largely depends on their ability to successfully mimic human interactions. At this point, quality varies widely, he added.

Understandably, companies appreciate chatbot technology's ability to save them money by replacing or reducing call center employees. But there is a fine line between cutting headcount and slitting your own throat with degraded customer satisfaction, he warned.

"I believe that there are also generational factors at work here. As foundational technologies improve and older consumers who prefer living representatives are replaced by younger people who are accustomed to interacting with virtual agents, chatbots will become common across businesses and industries," said King.

Human Simulation

So far, consumers are seeing chatbots pop up as dialog systems on websites providing customer service, request routing, and information gathering. Shoppers also engage chatbots when they dial into customer service departments and other businesses.

Chatbots are highly sophisticated software applications that can conduct online chat conversations via text or text-to-speech technologies. They replace direct contact with a live human agent.

Also, chatbots can ease customer fears about the technology, Sheth suggested. Unlike websites and apps, chatbots enable computers to behave like humans.

"Chatbots are natural to interact with and require no technical expertise to use. Thus, chatbots can reduce customer anxiety or fear about using technology," he explained.

At the high end, the software behind the AI-powered performance includes extensive word-classification processes, natural language processors, and sophisticated AI. Other chatbot applications scan for general keywords and generate responses using common phrases obtained from an associated library or database.

"Chatbots are a special kind of bot, one that can engage in automated chat conversations with users. Chatbots simulate human chat interactions with a user and are often used for customer support, sales, and marketing," Sheth said.

A recent study by Myplanet shows that consumers are learning to at least tolerate interacting with chatbots for some tasks, whether via voice during phone calls or conducting using text on a website. But there is still a growth factor needed before consumers, in general, are ready to get really cozy with chatbots.

Myplanet conducted its latest survey in October 2020. Researchers asked 500 U.S. respondents aged 18 to 65+ using Google Consumer Surveys on websites in the Google Surveys Publisher Network. Responses were weighted for age, gender, and location to more closely represent the population and remove bias from the survey sample.

The survey presented participants with a series of nine images and a short description of various forms of interactive technology. Researchers asked respondents to rank on a five-point scale how strongly they disagreed or agreed with the statement: "I would feel comfortable interacting with this technology."

Voice Assistants Most Preferred

Perhaps one of the more surprising results shows voice assistants are outpacing text chatbots in desirability. Of all chatbot technologies surveyed, voice assistant apps on phones ranked significantly more desirable (33 percent comfort agree rate) compared to the average comfort level with chatbot technologies (22 percent comfort agree rate).

In general, respondents viewed chatbot technologies that used a voice assistant as more desirable than text-based chatbots. For example, the question referenced voice chatbot and text chatbot options for scheduling an appointment.

Scheduling chatbots that used a voice assistant ranked more desirable (24 percent comfort level) compared to scheduling chatbots that used text (20 percent comfort level).

Also surprising is the role women play in embracing chatbot interactions. Women are driving the growth in chatbot desirability, according to the survey results.

More Findings

In general, researchers found no significant differences in comfort levels across age groups, genders, and regions surveyed. However, female respondents indicated that they are more comfortable than male respondents with voice assistants on phones (37 percent vs 30 percent comfort level), banking chatbots (22 percent vs 15 percent comfort level), and customer service chatbots (34 percent vs 21 percent comfort level).

These latest responses are highly significant as an indicator of the growing acceptance of chatbots. This finding aligns with an overall increase in favorability from the company's June 2020 survey.

The October survey found that respondents preferred chatbots for simple tasks. Survey takers indicated that chatbots dealing with more sensitive information, such as health and banking data, were less desirable than chatbots that were more customer service or scheduling oriented.

For example, customer service chatbots had a 33 percent comfort level compared to banking chatbots with an 18 percent comfort level.

Perhaps the most unfavorable response involved chatbots that touched on "human" topics. Therapist chatbots ranked very undesirable with a 15 percent comfort level (comparable to the comfort level of self-driving taxis) and reflect a similar viewpoint to physical robotics used for comfort and therapy applications.

The full survey results can be seen here.

Interactions 101

Sheth's company developed an AI-powered platform for developers to build bots for SMS, Twitter, Slack, and others. The platform helps develop user notifications and customer engagement.

Specific factors make consumers uncomfortable with chatbot technologies, he noted. While chatbots may have AI-powered natural language capabilities, they may still not be perfect.

"A chatbot may not understand user queries and provide incorrect responses, making users uncomfortable or disappointed," he said. "Younger people who are native users of text messaging are natural adopters of chatbot technologies."

Companies can start introducing chatbots by automating frequently asked queries, suggested the Gupshup CEO. Later, a business can add more automation over time based on actual user queries.

"Chatbot conversations are ideal for personal functions since chat is a private one-on-one interaction that is not visible to anyone except the participants," said Sheth.


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.


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