By Vlad Vidaeff
 
For the generation that grew up with AOL Instant Messenger, you are likely already familiar with bots.  In an era where boredom as a child was a common occurrence (something that has disappeared these days with advancements in technology and limitless entertainment options), “IM’ing” your friends was a popular activity for children and teens.  In addition to your real friends, there were several bots you could chat with such as SmarterChild.  While they were not especially useful in any way, bots were a way to pass the time.  Most of us would make fun of bots by insulting them or making ridiculous statements to see how they would react.  Fast forward to 2016.  Bots are being lauded as the next big thing.  In fact, at Facebook’s recent F8 developer conference, the social media giant announced bots for Messenger.  This blog will explore Facebook’s attempt to become the leader in bots, the benefits for brands, and whether consumers will likely adopt the service.
 
fb-artFacebook bots will be connected to Messenger.  With 900 million monthly users, the public is certainly intrigued by Facebook’s plans to dive into the foray.  Mark Zuckerberg’s motivation is his own personal experience with customer service.  Who hasn’t been annoyed by long wait times to speak to a customer representative who either doesn’t understand your problem, is unwilling to help, is rude, or all of the above?  A chatbot is a relatively simple piece of software that uses artificial intelligence to converse with a human.  The grand vision behind chatbots is ushering in a new era of customer service where the more than 15 million businesses that have company pages on Facebook can use Messenger to interact with consumers.  While chatbots have launched, the software is in its infancy.  Companies including CNN, 1-800-Flowers, and a weather and travel app called Poncho are some of the early participants.
 
Phil Libin of General Catalyst called bots the “most important trend of the year.”  Facebook is certainly not the only company trying to assert its presence.  Microsoft, Kik, and hundreds upon hundreds of startups are all pushing their own software.  What are the benefits on Facebook’s end?  Based on Facebook’s acquisitions and public statements, the company wants to become more than just the leader in social media.  Facebook wants to be the central hub where users come to not only interact with their friends but brands too.  Instead of dealing with multiple websites and multiple apps on a daily basis, what if you could go to Facebook for all of it?  Imagine if you could call an Uber to bring you to work, check up on your friends during the car ride over, order food from your favorite restaurant, buy flowers for your significant other, all within Facebook’s framework.  This would certainly simplify your life as people are getting annoyed with having to download a bunch of apps for the various businesses that they care about.  On Facebook’s end, the potential advertising opportunities and the growth of the company are beyond lucrative.
 
What about for brands?  Facebook Messenger’s 900 million active monthly users are really all you have to know.  Since so many users are already using Messenger to interact with their friends, why not jump on a platform that such a large percentage of people already use and are comfortable with?  If you develop bots and then require consumers to go to your website or your app, this is no easy task.  By using Facebook’s existing user base, brands have the opportunity to connect with consumers where they like to spend their time.
 
But the crux of the issue is whether consumers will adopt bots.  My answer depends on the complexity of the products or services that a company provides and the complexity of what the consumer is trying to achieve.  I think there are multiple hurdles and potential stumbling blocks when it comes to adoption of bots.  First, people already get annoyed when they have to deal with a customer service representative who is located outside of the United States.  While some companies outsource their customer service to foreign countries as a cost-cutting measure, and these representatives go through training, the language barrier can sometimes prove annoying.  Gizmodo wrote an article describing Facebook bots as frustrating and useless.  When consumers interact with a bot thinking they are interacting with a human, they will likely use conversational language.  This can lead to situations where bots are unable to understand what the consumer is asking.  A major issue since bots have launched and the key to success is likely how advanced the technology for bots will become.  If the artificial intelligence is advanced with a high level of natural language processing, this will ensure smooth conversations between bots and humans.
 
I see bots’ primary benefit being to serve companies with relatively simple products and services.  If the ordering process is simple, without a great degree of customization, or if the consumer’s problem is easy to fix, bots exude a nice personal touch.  The fear is that most consumers will find that bots aren’t worth the hassle and choose to purchase products or services the old-fashioned away.  Or even worse, they may decide to go with a competitor after an unfavorable experience.  Given the amount of funding going to companies with this technology, and the major players getting involved, a good amount of people are betting on the success of bots and the evolution of the customer service experience.  How may I help you (robotic voice)?