In what some may see as a rise of the machines, the chatbot has become an unavoidable and ever-growing part of more and more company websites — with tasks ranging from simple troubleshooting to battling depression.
In fact, according to a 2015 study conducted by eMarketer.com, 1.4 billion people worldwide interacted with chatbots. The trajectory has only continued to go upwards, with another study by Oracle showing that 80 percent of businesses reported that they are either using or planning to use bots by next year. In particular, they’ve grown in popularity in such industries as banking and health care, with marketers also coming to see their merits.
Chatbots — or interactive agents — are AI programs that assist customers and users by engaging them in conversation and troubleshooting. Notable examples include Facebook Messenger and WeChat, along with Amazon Alexa.
In the case of the health care industry, the use of the bots has been found to help as therapeutic agents for patients trying to quit harmful habits like smoking. In a recent article by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, it was found that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients felt well engaged by the system. This is especially desirable as health care technology moves further and toward self-management for such things as healthy dieting, exercise and symptom management.
“Moreover, computer programs and services promise to overcome some of the physical limitations of a human therapist,” the article said. “They can be duplicated rapidly and almost without limit, and they are not fixed to a physical location and never tire of operation, being available (almost) wherever and whenever they are needed.”
However, the same article does caution that these same pre-programmed responses can lack immediacy and emotional intelligence only available with humans. Chatbot-related health care also seems to be somewhat slower for the Central Valley to embrace. For example, while Saint Agnes Medical Center has rolled out a one-way means of communication for doctors, there is no back-and-forth AI communication for patients in this manner.
“We have a new dictation system for our physicians that allows them to electronically dictate into the medical record,” said Kelley Sanchez, director of corporate communications at Saint Agnes Medical Center. “But it isn’t a two-way communication.”
On the other hand, Community Regional Medical Center has made full use of the chatbot system not in their health care, but in their recruiting department.
Marketers have also been able to make significant use of chatbots, often serving as a way to ease the process of finding the right person for a customer to connect to and work with by gaining customer insight and measuring the quality of a potential lead. According to Forbes, these devices can sell products, personalize marketing, and increase leads, among other conveniences.
And while they can be a convenient and useful tool, the same lack of a human factor found in medical bots can also be spotted in other industries. Janzen Brands CEO Gary Janzen says that he has multiple clients who either rely on them or on similar programs — especially in the automotive and sleep industries. In particular, he mentioned the “Christmas tree,” which allows customers to chat directly with the salesperson. One of his main concerns with the use of chatbots is that while the customer may be able to get the satisfaction of an immediate interaction, follow-up can be poor.
“One of the issues that I think there is with chat features on websites is that a lot of requests for chats go unanswered,” Janzen said. “Or are lost because someone has not attended them. It is one thing to serve up the chat opportunity, but it is another thing to answer it.”
Janzen elaborated that those seeking to use chatbots to help in their marketing and customer service should exercise caution, or the convenience may come at the cost of efficiency in customer service.
“Our consumer market is so convenience-driven that sometimes we can let the objective of convenience get the best of us because we don’t really assure that in the end, what we’re delivering is not just convenient but also effective,” Janzen said. “There’s a sort of balance between convenience and effectiveness.”