Ready to Chat

Automation can do a lot for you, as chatbots have gone more mainstream and are expanding.

By C. Prasanna Venkatesan

Take a guess. How many of your recent online interactions involved a bot? If you were asking routine questions or checking the status of a package, then that number is probably higher than you think.

That’s because chatbots — those artificially intelligent, often maligned, auto-responders — have gone mainstream and are expanding. From Federal Express on Facebook to UPS on Google, top brands in the transportation and logistics industry are using chatbots in a variety of both internal and customer-facing applications.

Studies show that — especially for routine inquiries — customers actually prefer to deal with an efficient, automated chatbot than with a live person.

Chatbot 2.0 

The top stories in the artificial intelligence (AI) narrative may highlight flashy drones and ubiquitous driverless cars. However, improvements to language capabilities of modern chatbots, coupled with relatively recent changes in the technology landscape, have catapulted chatbots to center stage.

However, the idea of a chatbot is not new. In 1966, MIT took a giant leap in the AI space and introduced, “Eliza.” Considered by many to be the original chatbot, Eliza’s interactions with humans were purely text-based and taken from a set of scripted responses that let Eliza converse with humans on limited topics.

Modern chatbots are much more forgiving than their predecessors and can even provide examples and options for users to choose from to ensure a successful interaction. While Siri might turn up her nose, it’s Eliza’s descendants who are proving to be the best new thing in the transportation and logistics workplace.

Strictly speaking, a chatbot is a type of AI program that interfaces with humans via text or voice input —in other words, you type or say something and the chatbot responds. You can ask your questions the same way you speak — without having to translate your request into the very specific, perfectly formatted search query that used to be the norm.

According to Martin Beeby, developer evangelist at Oracle (and formerly with Microsoft), “…we’re getting to a point where the user is able to explicitly ask for what they want rather than always traveling down a predetermined road.”  For example, it’s easier to say, “Tell me the cost of shipping a package to Wichita,” and answer the prompts about weight and delivery dates than it is to look up potential answers in multiple tables that probably include all rates for all types of packages shipped to all 50 states.

Today’s chatbots definitely offer better results with customer-facing applications, but they can also provide invaluable assistance to internal employees in day-to-day operations. No matter who is doing the asking, the need is the same: information delivered and questions answered.

Do the Math

What could you and your employees do with an assistant who speaks the same language you do? An assistant who knows where everything is and can deliver that information faster than you can finish asking for it? The answer is “a lot.”

Chatbot work is characterized as automating the routine delivery of information — that means doing work that your employees could do with one hand tied behind their backs, but work that still takes up a great deal of their time. A quick application here of the 80/20 Pareto principle looks something like this: 80 percent of customer inquiries can be answered by 20 percent of your knowledge base.

Now imagine that your call center has an assistant who is fluent in that 20 percent of your knowledge base — maybe an assistant who knows it even better than your employees. If you let that assistant cover the 20 percent — which anecdotally represents 80 percent of your calls — then you can use your experienced employees for more complex or more important issues and leave the routine issues in the very capable “hands” of a chatbot.

The Future is Information Delivery

When information is able to move quickly through an organization, teams can act faster and exceed customer expectations by identifying potential issues before (or immediately after) they occur. This efficient flow of information is what lets your customer service representatives identify sales opportunities and deliver relevant marketing information to your customers at the most opportune time. While customer-facing roles continue to be the overwhelming use for chatbots, the full potential of this automated AI app remains untapped.

Analysts estimate that chatbots could automate as much as one third of an organization’s customer service tasks, but chatbots also can have a significant impact in other areas of the business. For example, would it be helpful to have someone automatically track and analyze traffic data and use that information to alert your drivers to traffic delays while seamlessly providing alternate routes?  It’s a pretty routine task, so handling it automatically is a win for everyone.

How about scheduling preventive maintenance for delivery vehicles during a time when the vehicle is not in use and the mechanics are on duty? Someone has to do it, why not turn it over to a chatbot?

Don’t ignore the side benefits that come with using chatbots to increase the efficiency and productivity of your employees — including, (but not limited to), an upswing in customer satisfaction, more-engaged employees and an acknowledgment that your business is keeping current with modern trends and technologies.

From 3D printing to drones to autonomous vehicles, technology disruptions in the transportation and logistics industry are transforming the traditional landscape and opening up a lot of uncharted territory. The competitive environment is fierce and constantly changing, and young disruptors (like Uber) as well as new spin-offs from industry giants (like UPS) are constantly looking for ways to do more for less.

Organizations that plan to be around for the long haul need to play smart. The good news is that — in addition to being the consummate disruptor — technology is also the great equalizer. Advances and opportunities that were once deemed as unattainable for the average company are becoming more affordable and more accessible because of technologies like cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT).

There’s no denying that chatbots provide a friendlier, more accessible way to deliver information to both employees and customers.

Whether it’s as a recommendation engine presenting a choice of options or as a querybot answering questions, chatbots offer organizations an efficient, effective way to extend services and capabilities while having a minimal impact on their budget.

SIDEBAR – Five Things You Should Know About Chatbots

1. Chatbots are more pervasive than you think. According to an Oracle-sponsored survey of 800 senior marketing and sales executives, 80 percent of these leaders say chatbots are already part of their customer experience or will be by 2020. As of the last quarter of 2016, 79 percent of supply chain businesses said they were not using chatbots at all. However, in the second quarter of 2017, 51 percent of respondents admitted to depending on them.

2. Chatbots aren’t new, but they have recently undergone a technological makeover. Improved natural language capabilities and the addition of voice recognition commands, (instead of the traditional text-based input), have opened chatbots up to more applications.

3. Internal chatbots are the new best thing. While customer-facing applications have been the more visible face of traditional chatbots, advances in AI and in the technology landscape (think cloud computing) are making chatbots more accessible to businesses of all sizes.

4. About customer-facing applications: Studies show that customers — especially the younger Millennials and Gen Z consumers —increasingly favor talking with chatbots rather than interacting with humans when making reservations, scheduling appointments and conducting routine customer service inquiries.

5. Chatbots can team up with human CSRs. In addition to showing up in previously non-traditional roles in supply chain technology, chatbots are adding value by working in conjunction with regular employees. For example, when a customer needs a question answered outside of regular business hours, they can get immediate feedback 24/7 and can later be switched to in-person conversations that can pick up where the chatbot left off. Before making the follow-up call, human CSRs can refer to the chatbot’s history to gain a thorough understanding of the issue and have a resolution ready for the customer.

C. Prasanna Venkatesan Is director of the Industry Solutions Group at Oracle. His team focuses on marrying emerging technologies such as AI, blockchain, chatbots and the Internet of Things with business-relevant applications to build use cases in transportation and logistics and other industries.