Social Distancing Makes Chatbots More Valuable than Ever

Even when coronavirus social distancing regulations subside, chatbots are likely to be the norm for virtual interactions.

By Ellen Gans
April 28, 2020

How much of your life can you conduct online?

As most of us are finding out, the answer seems to be quite a bit.

Even prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the developed world was trending toward conducting an increasing number of tasks online. We shop online. We seek information online. We catch the latest news online. We conduct business online. We stay in touch with family and friends online.

Now, with a pandemic sweeping the globe, we’re leaning on virtual technology more than ever. For some of us, there’s a learning curve involved with shifting tasks online—and there may also be a comfort level that needs to develop. Case in point: If you’ve always conducted your banking in person, passing checks or cold, hard cash directly into the hands of a teller, it can be disconcerting to snap a photo of a check, punch in a couple of numbers, and trust that the money will end up where it needs to go.

A permanent shift?

The good thing about everyone getting a crash course in conducting virtual lives during social distancing: We have no choice but to gain comfort level and expertise with various virtual platforms, interfaces, and tools.

Even when social distancing regulations subside, the increased online comfort level and expertise will still be intact.

How can businesses take advantage of that shift in consumer behavior? One way is by continuing to invest in technologies that capitalize on the trend toward virtual interactions. Regardless of how long social distancing lasts, the impact could be evergreen.

One example of technology that’s likely to experience growth as a result of this shift: chatbots. Chatbots use artificial intelligence (AI) to automate conversations with existing or potential customers.

More Americans are on board with chatbots

Most Americans don’t mind chatting with chatbots. That’s the verdict of “recent surveys, studies, forecasts and other quantitative assessment of the progress of AI,” which “highlighted the growth in consumers’ acceptance of chatbots,” according to Forbes.

As of late 2019—prior to the documented outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States—62 percent of Americans reported interest in using chatbots to interact with businesses. That marks a significant jump from the previous year, when only 52 percent of Americans held this opinion. With nationwide social distancing—plus full lockdowns in some areas—the need to communicate online has never been higher, suggesting that the numbers for 2020 have the potential for even stronger growth.

The coronavirus and corresponding regulations are likely to impact numbers worldwide. Chatbots certainly aren’t exclusive to the U.S. In fact, Forbes reports that consumers in the UK, Australia, and France report the highest level of chatbot usage globally, topping the numbers in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Smart resource deployment

Chatbots can help a company dramatically scale their capacity for engaging with and supporting their target audience. Chatbots facilitate smart resource deployment in a few different ways. Often, chatbots are a first line of contact, ideally suited to basic inquiries. This frees up human customer support staff for more elevated or nuanced conversations. Chatbots can provide flex support during times of increased customer need, and they can also supplement human support staff who may be less available due to illness or the need to care for children amid pandemic-related school closures. Chatbots can also be deployed without regard for staffing schedules, since fully automated chatbots can be used 24/7.

Responsive support

Though chatbots are a form of artificial intelligence, they can solve a very human common customer support problem: In the absence of chatbots, customers may have to spend an extended amount of time on hold, waiting to connect with someone. Alternately, they may be asked to defer to an FAQ page, send an email, or fill out an inquiry form. The immediacy of a chatbot can create a sense of being “heard” that is important for attracting, engaging, and retaining customers.

Chatbots can be customized to the needs of the business. An “on rails” chatbot limits customer input to preselected responses, offering a structure that is less personalized but also much simpler to build. Advanced chatbots can more closely approximate written human dialogue.

Now more than ever

The first known bot-versus-human communication took place as far back as 1966, but the events of 2020 have opened a new tier of significance for chatbot communication. Even without the coronavirus outbreak, Forbes reported that 64 percent of surveyed organizations were planning to increase their investments in artificial intelligence this year. Given the unprecedented shift toward online interactions, perhaps the other 36 percent should consider doing the same.