The ultimate guide to customer service chatbots

Chatbots are most successful when customer service leaders use them to empower agents. Learn how to foster agent-bot partnerships.

By Hannah Wren, Content Marketing Associate

Published October 22, 2020
Last updated December 21, 2020

Customers today use chatbots to do everything from check if they have COVID-19 symptoms to find the perfect lipstick color.

Business use of conversational Artificial Intelligence (AI) is only going in one direction. Gartner predicts that 70 percent of customer interactions will involve emerging technologies such as machine learning, chatbots, and mobile messaging by 2022—a 15 percent increase from 2018.

Providing great chatbot support starts with understanding how chatbots and agents can work together—and then picking the right bot based on your customers’ and support team’s needs.

  1. What is a chatbot?
  2. How does a chatbot work?
  3. Are chatbots going to steal customer service jobs?
  4. Chatbot business benefits
  5. Picking the right bot

What is a chatbot?

A chatbot is a scripted or self-learning AI tool programmed to converse with customers through an app, website, or messaging channel in a way that mimics a human conversation.

How does a chatbot work?

A chatbot uses predefined rules, natural language processing, machine learning, or deep learning to interpret customer (or employee) requests and provide responses.

Chatbots work best for interactions where customer needs are specific and clear.

  • A bot can work alongside a knowledge base to answer frequently asked questions by recommending relevant help center articles. An airline service could deflect repetitive inquiries, like “How do I change my ticket?” with step-by-step instructions for that task.
  • With access to business and customer data, chatbots can deliver more contextual and personalized responses. If Mark wants to change his ticket to Hawaii, a bot can tell him available flights on his new travel date and that he’s eligible for a discount if he upgrades to first class.
  • Taking it a step further, an AI chatbot can help customers interactively complete tasks. Mark could point and click to reserve a window seat and purchase his upgraded ticket—inside the conversation thread.

Are chatbots going to steal customer service jobs?

Chatbots are most successful when customer service leaders use them in conjunction with agents and foster agent-machine partnerships. Humans will always be the secret sauce to a great customer experience.

Customers want to interact with real people, but they want those interactions to be meaningful. Low-stakes questions like ‘How do I change my password?’ are tasks customers prefer to resolve on-demand via self-service.

When bots take lackluster cases off a support team’s plate, agents can prioritize more engaging inquiries that require a human touch.

Chatbots can also start conversations on an agent's behalf, capturing context like a customer’s order number or city upfront, before an agent takes over.

How Fintiba’s chatbot empowers agents

Fintiba offers online solutions for people who want to work or study in Germany. Agents are critical for resolving issues that require empathy, like when a customer’s visa gets declined.

Every conversation goes through Fintiba's virtual agent before a human agent, alleviating pressure from Fintiba’s support team.

For example, when customers want to change their account phone number, they complete a form and attach a selfie for identification inside Fintiba’s chatbot. An agent can then jump in with the process already started.

Fintiba’s chatbot solution, Solvemate, can route conversations to agents—complete with context and conversation history—because it integrates with Fintinba’s customer service software.

With Zendesk’s Bot APIs, businesses using our omnichannel customer support solution, Zendesk Support Suite, and our CRM platform, Sunshine Conversations, can build integrations with a variety of chatbot solutions to ensure agents and bots work seamlessly together. Some of our chatbot partners include:

When chatbots augment—not replace—agents, it’s a better experience for everyone.

To learn more about how agents and chatbots can work together, read our blog.

Benefits of chatbots that go beyond efficiency and cost savings

Chatbots have benefits beyond “increasing efficiency” and “cutting costs”—that’s table stakes.
Here are a few ways humans can work in tandem with chatbots to solve key business challenges.

Challenge: Customers want a more convenient way to get live one-to-one help—24/7

How a bot can help:

Being constantly connected has increased customers’ desire for instant support. Customers today expect help as soon as they need it, on channels convenient for them.

In fact, Zendesk’s findings revealed that over 40 percent of customers consider 24/7 support, in real-time, a top component of a good customer experience. And a study by Accenture found that 83 percent of churned customers insist that better live customer service would have impacted their decision to switch providers.

If Sally’s lunch delivery order is delayed, she can text a chatbot to ask where her sushi is and get an update on her California roll in real-time. If Rachel lost her credit card, a virtual assistant can help her pause it over her bank’s mobile app, so she doesn’t have to worry about mysterious charges while she tries to find it.

In deploying a chatbot across customers’ preferred channels, businesses ensure customers get seamless, always-on support.

Challenge: Customer requests are increasing and the business needs to scale quickly

How a bot can help:

42 percent of customer service leaders expect customer requests to grow, yet only 36 percent can expand headcount. This gap represents a sweet spot where a chatbot can help.

42 percent of customer service leaders expect customer requests to grow, yet only 36 percent can expand headcount.

For instance:

  • As a small team, Spartan Race deployed Zendesk’s Answer Bot to help its agents tackle spikes in customer requests during races—races are hard to staff for because they occur on weekends. Spartan Race has seen a 9.5 percent decrease in chat volume, extending its support team’s live chat availability by 3 hours every day from time savings.
  • As France’s national rail carrier, SNCF needed to provide quick support to impatient passengers on-the-go using its new mobile app. But it couldn’t hire another team of agents to deal with the influx of requests. Mindsay's Zendesk integration enabled SNCF to take pressure off its overwhelmed agents and deploy a chatbot to help customers find travel itineraries, provide departure information, and send alerts—leading to a 50 percent reduction in incoming support tickets.

Chatbots give support teams the ability to scale with less.

Challenge: The business is missing out on opportunities for conversion

How a bot can help:

Customer service bots can boost conversions with smarter self-service.

A chatbot can enable customers to self-serve outside of a help center, like on a checkout page, with knowledge tailored to their context. For example:

  • 55 percent of online shoppers abandon a purchase because they can’t find an answer to a question quickly. Dollar Shave Club uses Answer Bot to welcome website visitors with help center articles and answer questions it can anticipate—before a customer abandons their cart.
  • Using Netomi’s Zendesk integration, Freshly deflects around 2,200 tickets each week. Its chatbot collects website visitor’s email addresses before they ask a question, which serves a dual purpose of capturing context for agents and capturing leads for marketing teams.
  • Wavy uses a chatbot to help with prospecting and lead generation. Botmind’s Zendesk integration made it easy to set up and increased conversion by 25 percent.

55 percent of online shoppers abandon a purchase because they can’t find an answer to a question quickly.

Taking it to the next level, chatbots can convert customers inside the messenger by providing opportunities for immediate action with rich messaging types like carousels, forms, and picklists—whether that’s booking a hotel reservation or purchasing a pair of shoes.

Chatbots can also automate cross-sell and up-sell activities. With the right context, a bot can check if Sam is eligible for a discount on a hotel room with a view or ask if he wants a pair of socks to match his new Nikes.

4 questions to consider when evaluating a customer service chatbot

Chatbots are relatively new to customer service, and companies are still figuring out how they fit within their broader support strategies. This makes it challenging to know how to find the right bot for your business.

Here are some questions to consider.

What problem are you looking to solve—and what resources do you need to solve it?

A business will need to decide what use cases to automate based on the problem it wants to solve and its resources, for starters.

Companies looking to automate simple, frequently asked questions often already have a solution they can leverage—their knowledge base. FAQs are low-hanging fruit that work well with out-of-the-box solutions, like Answer Bot.

This type of AI-powered bot enables teams to get fast time to value, serving help center articles across a variety of channels from email to mobile SDKs to Slack, and capturing basic customer context along the way.

Some companies want to deflect more interactive or personalized requests, like telling Kate how much data her iPhone used this month or recommending a new plan based on her data needs.

This requires more resources, like developers (and a bigger budget). They’ll also need a chatbot solution that integrates with their customer service software and other relevant systems.

Other businesses are looking for a highly customized chatbot that serves more engaging and actionable content or requires multi-step workflows (like giving Kate the ability to purchase a new phone plan inside the conversation thread). They’ll likely need in-house developers.

Rich chatbot experiences also require a powerful chatbot platform to provide the infrastructure.

Sunshine’s Conversation Extensions arms businesses with tools to build the kind of next-generation conversational experiences that enable customers to complete purchases, surveys, appointments, maps, or multi-selects—within the messenger.

What channels do you want to use—and what features will you need on those channels?

A business should optimize its chatbot for how customers will consume it.

Think about channels your customers engage with the most. Customers expect to get support over their preferred touchpoints—whether they’re interacting with a human or a bot.

If your customers spend time on your website or mobile app, a bot might welcome them there—but that’s table stakes.

Research tells us customers want to interact with brands on channels they use with friends or family. Messaging channels, like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter Direct Message, LINE, Apple Business Chat (which integrates with iMessage), or SMS lend themselves to more convenient conversational experiences.

For instance, Plum, a Facebook Messenger chatbot, also available on the Plum app, sends users personalized savings advice. Or, Samsung Australia created a Twitter chatbot to give customers personalized TV recommendations.

Beyond channel breadth, a business should consider features it will need on those channels.

  • Quick replies allow customers to find answers in a few clicks instead of typing
  • Adding a call-to-action button increases click-through-rate 3 times
  • Carousels result in 10 times higher engagement
  • In-chat conversion-to-purchase rate is 2.3 times higher compared to a website or mobile app

Sunshine Conversations enables a business to build once and deploy anywhere—in other words; deploy the same or best version of a rich bot experience across channels, even those with no native bot support.

What level of context will your chatbot need?

More context leads to better chatbots—and better-personalized conversations.

Using Ada’s Zendesk integration, Upwork deployed a chatbot that displays proactive CTAs tailored to what a user is trying to accomplish, such as CTAs based on what help center article a user is viewing.

Upwork’s bot also has contextual metadata like a user’s name for personalized greetings and knows if a user is a client or a freelancer, tailoring quick replies accordingly. It also integrates with our Support Suite, so agents have the context they need to handle every escalated interaction effectively.

Beyond passing on relevant information to agents, bots can also pass on context to a CRM or other software to inform a future interaction. This enables things like:

  • Understanding that Rose has a necklace in her cart and sending a message to a marketing automation tool, so she receives better-targeted email offers
  • Knowing that IT Buyer Bob signed up for a demo and qualifying him as a lead in a sales CRM

Bots can read context coming from a conversation itself, too. With sentiment analysis, a virtual agent can understand when a customer is frustrated and react accordingly.

How will you manage conversations between chatbots and agents?

Businesses need tools to both deploy chatbot conversations on the front-end and manage them on the back-end.

This ensures agents can understand the intent behind every conversation and streamline handoffs between agents and chatbots.

With the help of triggers, automation, and workflows, support teams can centrally define engagement rules and track, manage, and prioritize chatbot interactions at scale. This opens up possibilities like automatically assigning:

  • A high priority to VIP customers so a bot can route them to a live salesperson for help—with conversation history
  • A repeat dissatisfied customer to a specialized customer support team–by looking at context, sentiment, and intent

To effectively control bot interactions, a business will need to integrate its chatbot solution with its customer service software, for example, through our Bot APIs.

The Agent Workspace inside our Support Suite provides agents with a real-time, conversation-focused interface to seamlessly manage conversations between agents and bots.

Rephrase the conversation

AI is key to delivering fast, convenient, and personalized experiences customers expect.

The question is no longer “Should we use chatbots?” so much as “Where and how should we use chatbots?” to better serve our customers.

When a business balances the power of virtual agents with human agents' power, it can create the kind of customer service chatbot that drives loyalty—and improves the bottom line

Make all your business's chatbot dreams come true

Whether you’re just getting started with chatbots or looking to scale, Zendesk can help.