The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly transforming the way we connect, communicate and collaborate. One powerful tool helping to close the social distance gap between customers and businesses is the chatbot, a software application designed for human-like conversations.

Though they've been around since 1966, chatbots were already a familiar feature on company websites in the pre-Covid era. The technology uses customer data to personalize interactions, answer questions and route requests to the right person. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) enables the bots to recognize common words and phrases as well as gather information to resolve issues or assist agents once a call is transferred.

Recently, chatbots have become especially valuable in helping businesses adapt to smaller workforces and the shift to work from home. Amid the pandemic, they're being used to fill the resource gap and enable businesses to operate at scale.

North Yorkshire County Council use chatbots to offset their volume of calls and webchat requests >

But that's not the only reason we're seeing more conversational AI. As it turns out, customers value them as much as businesses do. According to a recent study, 62% of U.S. consumers say they like using chatbots to interact with businesses. While they still prefer a human agent's help with complex matters, customers are more willing to accept AI help for simple tasks, such as relaying an account balance.

Meeting the demands of the COVID-19 Era

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, businesses were operating under the strain of reduced staff and the switch to remote work. Chatbots helped them meet the demand of call center inquiries and long wait queues. Beyond support issues, conversational AI also has been rolled out for a variety of uses in multiple sectors.

For instance, health insurance and medical companies are deploying chatbots to answer frequently asked questions about COVID-19 or to screen patients for potential infection. Retailers find bots help them meet higher demand for e-commerce online orders. Governments are using the technology to tackle record-level unemployment claims. In education, where virtual learning has become a necessity, chatbots are answering students' questions. Banks have deployed the technology to provide personalized responses during secure transactions.

Conversational AI is also adept at helping businesses manage heavier workloads created by the competing demands of shrinking workforces and higher call volumes. With chatbots handling routine questions and transactions, employees can spend more time building relationships with customers or working on problems that require creativity to solve. For example, the technology has allowed healthcare companies to scale down contact centers while also keeping service quality high. Chatbots assist with scheduling and billing inquiries, but employees focus on providing patient care.

Delivering on customer expectations

Businesses have much to gain from the use of chatbots, but what are the benefits for their customers? Though people often say they prefer getting help from a human, their real preferences are often driven by context. If they can get personalized answers faster, customers will happily work with chatbots. Some do express reservations, especially about security and privacy. Here's what businesses should keep in mind.

Improved customer experience

In a time of global crisis, customers crave authentic, personalized connections. Chatbots that incorporate empathy into their design are more likely to create a positive customer experience. The tone of voice, personality and language all contribute to authenticity and building customer trust. Accurate information will always be paramount. But when chatbots converse in a personalized and human way, they can set your business apart.

Fast, efficient service

Consumers are more likely to engage with chatbots if they feel they will save time and money. In a Gartner survey, 58% of respondents said they personally would use AI if it saved them time, compared to 53% who said saving money was their top reason. Nearly half (47%) say easier access to information would make them more likely to interact with a bot.

Security and privacy concerns

Customer perception of AI tools also differs from generation to generation. Millennials, who have a high level of comfort with AI technology, are likely to be more accepting, while Baby Boomers harbor concerns about security and privacy. Generation Xers are somewhere in between. Overall, customers say privacy is a significant concern. In the Gartner survey, 65% of respondents say they believe artificial intelligence will destroy privacy rather than enhance it. To increase adoption, business will need to tailor the experience to each user group.

Chatbots on the rise

All signs seem to indicate that chatbot growth will continue. The pandemic has provided businesses with proof that conversational AI is essential for improving both business operations and customer experiences. This trend toward more chatbot interactions is likely to continue as businesses rely on innovative ways to get work done and provide fast, efficient customer service.

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