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In 2016, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said bots are the new apps. A little premature, perhaps. But there is a growing community of AI engineers, UI specialists and marketers that believe bots’ time will come. Tim Green joined more than 200 of them at last month’s Chatbot Summit in Berlin.

Perhaps one day there will be no need for a chatbot summit. All that face to face human interaction. Surely there’s an AI for that?

Maybe not. After all, bots are meant to speed up the interactions we’d rather not dwell on such as ‘What’s my account balance?’, ‘can I book a table?’ ‘what year did Aqua release Barbie Girl?’.

It seems that people do like dwelling at conferences; last month’s Chatbot Summit in Berlin was packed. Yoav Barel, the founder of the event, was certainly in ebullient mood. He kicked things off with an overview of the space. Here are the highlights.

Bots are on the slope of enlightenment

Seasoned business people know all about the Gartner Hype Cycle, a ‘graphic representation of the maturity and adoption of technologies and applications’. The chart shows in line form how new tech starts with fevered excitement (the peak of inflated expectations), before dropping down to despair (the trough of disillusionment). Finally, reality sets in and the tech begins its slow ascendancy to the mainstream.

SMEs struggle to qualify the good leads when they come in. This makes it difficult for them to invest in lead generation. With a bot platform, they’ll never miss one. The bot works 24/7. It can increase the value of lead generation by 300 per cent.”

According to Barel, chatbots hit the the peak of inflated expectations in 2016 when Facebook went big on the UI, and Microsoft declared ‘bots are the new apps’. 2018 saw the fall down to the trough of disillusionment, when initial expectations weren’t met. Now, we’re on the ‘slope of enlightenment’.

Bots are democratising

As tech impacts every area of life, there is rising concern about the digital divide. Some social groups get locked out. What happens to older people, for example, when bank branches close?

Barel believes bots offer a way back in to the digital economy for those that lack digital skills. Pretty much anyone can converse with a bot – especially on voice platforms. This is good news for older people, the disabled, the illiterate and children.

And it might explain why, according to a Cap Gemini study, 70 per cent of consumers will replace their visits to a store or bank with voice assistant conversations over the next three years.

Why bots will win: low cost X ease of use

Businesses like customer-facing tech because it saves money. The running costs of websites and apps are low compared with call centres full of human operatives. But customers prefer human agents (providing they can get through). It all comes down to low cost vs ease of use.

Obviously, a well-designed bot combines the best of both. Barel showed how on a simple graph.

Bots are not just for customer service

It’s tempting to see bots as merely a tool for resolving customer queries. But this a limited view, says Barel. In fact, bots are set to proliferate across all facets of life – at home, in the car, shopping, at work. They will answer questions are provide information in every conceivable context.

Bots could save Vodafone $1 billion a year

Barel drew on the example of Vodafone to reveal how much large enterprises can gain from investing in bots.

The company has declared publicly its commitment to making chatbots handle 60 per cent of its customer interactions by 2021. It currently handles 50m calls a month. Barel reckons that if each human interaction costs up to $5 a session (his own numbers), that equates to $150m saved a month. Or more than $1bn a year.

Multiply that across multiple companies in multiple verticals and the potential impact is pretty mind blowing. It could make trillions of dollars of difference.

Lead generation: the big bot win for SMES

Most of the chatter around bots in business centres on large enterprises (see Vodafone). This is understandable. But Barel argues that SMEs will inevitably embrace the UI (as they did web sites and, to a lesser extent, apps).

The key driver will be biz dev/leads. “SMEs struggle to qualify the good leads when they come in. This makes it difficult for them to invest in lead generation. With a bot platform, they’ll never miss one. The bot works 24/7. It can increase the value of lead generation by 300 per cent.”

Disruptors will show the way

Digital-first insurer Lemonade is a slightly cliched example of the disruptive power of bots. But it’s hard to argue with it. Virtually all of the company’s customer interactions – from buying a policy to making a claim – are handled by natural language using bots. The strategy has helped the company to settle 30 per cent of claims in three to eight seconds.

Tim Green

Features Editor, MEF Minute


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