While talking with my mother one weekend, she was tapping away on her phone, eyebrows drawn together as she scowled at the screen. Immediately, I knew something was up. First, my mother isn’t technologically savvy. It took about six months with her writing down the instructions three times to teach her how to check her email. Second, she doesn’t text. She had only sent one text message — it was to me and complete gibberish.
When she put down her phone, she said, “This is ridiculous. I am going to call them and tell them what I think.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“They just keep sending me text messages.”
Apparently, a company chatbot had sent her a message about subscribing to their service to receive regular updates, but she thought she was talking to a real person. She subscribed and then it sent her a message telling her how to unsubscribe. She promptly unsubscribed. It sent another message letting her know she had unsubscribed. She wrote back a very long message about how that wasn’t what she wanted and described what led to the confusion. The chatbot responded with “that’s not a recognizable command.” The conversation — Mom vs. chatbot — went on for several minutes.
For all the advancements in technology to make our lives more convenient, many endeavors fall short of expectations. Now, I don’t believe most people confuse chatbots with real people — sorry, Mom — but experience with them can often be frustrating. We struggle our way through automated systems just trying to get to an actual person. Speaking with a real person can be equally frustrating of course, if not more so depending on the person. However, being able to speak normally and tell someone your problem has its benefits.
So why do chatbots come up in almost any artificial intelligence conversation? Because bots like the one my mom struggled with are quickly becoming relics. The advancement in chatbots is one of the more exciting fields in AI right now. Going beyond a mere bot, these digital assistants are being developed to learn, adapt and provide a better customer experience.
Companies like Swedbank have turned to chatbots to help improve their customer satisfaction levels. The company’s chatbot, Nina, handles 40,000 user problems a month and resolves 81% of the issues. The issues it can’t resolve are sent on to people who can provide a higher level of assistance. Swedbank is far from being alone in this. 80% of businesses want chatbots by 2020 because the technology provides:
- Cost savings
- Better customer service
How schools can use chatbots
Technology has expanded the reach of schools which has benefits and drawbacks. Creating a larger population of prospective students is important, especially now with declining enrollment numbers across the Midwest and East Coast. The drawback is perhaps less intuitive. There’s a lot of information available to students from a variety of sources about your school. This information overload makes it harder to control the message or reach all the students who have questions about your school across the various platforms — this is where chatbots could help.
Many factors contribute to a student’s decision about what school will be the best fit for them: reputation, cost, financial assistance, campus visits, location, career prospects, website information etc. These factor into your school’s brand and students’ perception. Reaching students earlier in their decision-making process could be the difference between that student choosing you verses another school — but how?
Hiring more employees to monitor social media and website traffic to improve prospective student outreach isn’t financially feasible. However, chatbots are.
When I go to my cell phone provider’s website, if I look around for a minute or two a small chatbot will pop up in the corner asking if it can help me. Sometimes I ignore it because I am just browsing phones. However, if I have an issue or want to find specific information I will chat with it. Schools could implement a similar method. If a prospective student is searching your site, a chatbot could help direct their search or answer questions about your school, rather than the student leaving frustrated because they couldn’t find what they are looking for.
Chatbots can also be used on social media. Businesses who use chatbots to interact on their behalf in Facebook Messenger have gotten a 400% return on investment.
It isn’t just about recruitment. Retaining students is equally important. Nontraditional students make up a significant portion of campus and are a growing population on campus. However, they are harder to reach than other students and are a more at-risk population — only 29% feel like they belong. Reaching out to these students and engaging with them is a big part of retaining them.
Using chatbots on the website to better answer their questions or direct their queries to someone who can help in a more efficient manner would make it possible to not only reach these students, but also show them your school cares about them and their success.
New technology always encounters a certain number of issues while the bugs are identified and fixed. Looking beyond the risk of making communication too impersonal, one factor that keeps popping up among the companies working on advancing this technology is control.
In an effort to make chatbots as human and intuitive as possible, they need to be able to learn from conversations. However, computers that learn don’t always say what you want them to say. According to the BBC, Chinese chatbots were shut down after they made some anti-government remarks. And this isn’t the first time chatbots had to be shut down for inappropriate comments. Microsoft had a similar experience with their Twitter bot, and Facebook recently shut down chatbots that created their own language.
As the technology develops there will be bumps along the way, but they aren’t enough to stop the research and honing of this potentially useful tool.