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Grow Your Business Technology

Realistic AI Chatbot Trends for Businesses in 2018

Chatbots for small business
Credit: Shutterstock

Artificially intelligent chatbots aren't just for Fortune 500 companies anymore. Thanks to a slew of innovative bot ventures that focus on the user experience, small business owners are now using AI technology to improve daily operations, connect with clients and increase sales. Heavy hitters like Mark Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella have publicly touted the value of AI chatbot technology. With Google's investment in Allo, Facebook's launch of Messenger, Windows' rollout of Cortana, and the early success of Operator and Telegram, it's reasonable to assume that AI chatbots are going to become more common.

That said, tech adoption in the SMB sphere tends to take time, especially when the emerging technology is unfamiliar to most users. While many tech reporters like to paint 2018 as the year that every small business will use chatbots, the implementation process will likely be much more gradual. Enterprise-level companies are already using chatbots in droves, and in 2018, it's likely that they'll become more widespread in large businesses and eventually trickle down to small and midsize businesses.

Oracle recently published a report entitled "Can Virtual Experiences Replace Reality?" More than 800 senior marketing and sales professionals across Europe, the Middle East and Africa were surveyed, and the results showed a strong interest in adopting chatbots. In fact, 80 percent of the brands surveyed said they planned on using chatbots for customer service within the next four years, but only 36 percent of those respondents are already using chatbots, which is telling. There's a major difference between aspirational tech adoption and actual implementation. Forrester reported much more modest numbers for AI adoption across the board, concluding that about 20 percent of businesses would use AI (notice that's AI in general, not just chatbots) to make business decisions and provide customer service in 2018.

Since Oracle's products are primarily enterprise, it's reasonable to assume most of its poll respondents were not in the SMB sphere, but if the big dogs are really looking at a four-year adoption plan, it's only a matter of time before the tech trickle-down starts to reach less expansive businesses. Stateside, household names such as Capital One, Bank of America, Allstate, Marriott and Mastercard are investing big in chatbots to handle customer service needs, so the wave is coming.

Many polls have been reported regarding how consumers currently view chatbots. While millennial consumers are consistently the most accepting of chatbot technology, most data indicate the majority would rather speak to a living customer service rep than a chatbot. In fact, according to "The Chatbot Consumer Report," 71 percent of respondents said they didn't like using chatbots because they were unable to answer their queries efficiently.

It's important to note that the preference for human customer service representatives doesn't stem from a need for human interaction, but rather reflects the still-primitive service most chatbots can provide. Even in individual testing, it's easy to see the total lack of consistency across different chatbots. Some customer service bots are decent at answering very basic questions, while others require specific phrasing more akin to what you might type into a search engine than anything you would say aloud, and still others seem unable to answer even the most simply phrased questions.

This overall inconsistency, and specific lack of chatbots that can easily interpret and respond to natural speech, is a major roadblock that must be overcome if chatbots are to become as ubiquitous as most tech articles would have you believe. Enterprise-level companies understand this obstacle, and since employing chatbots (rather than humans) can significantly cut business costs, there will likely be more investment in producing not only chatbots, but the type of chatbots people want to interact with.

The adoption of chatbots by SMBs, like most business tech adoption, is likely to be driven by three factors: lower costs, improved technology and growing demand. Just a few short years ago, it was unheard of for an SMB to have a custom app, but as large corporations started pushing out apps and low-cost app creation services popped up, consumers began to expect apps as part of the standard customer service process.

In 2018, keep an eye on how chatbots are perceived by the public and peruse your options for low-cost bot creation, but don't jump in before the big guys have it figured out. If Mastercard and Bank of America haven't nailed the chatbot experience yet, it's probably too soon for drag-and-drop chatbot creation for SMBs.

Mona Bushnell

Mona Bushnell is a New York City-based Staff Writer for Tom’s IT Pro, Business.com and Business News Daily. She has a B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College and has previously worked as an IT Technician, a Copywriter, a Software Administrator, a Scheduling Manager and an Editorial Writer. Mona began freelance writing full-time in 2014 and joined the Purch team in 2017.