Chatbots are all the rage these days. In fact, 80% of company executives said they’ve used or are planning to implement chatbots by 2020, according to a recent Oracle survey. What’s behind the hype?

Well, pretend you want to know if a clothing retailer offers free shipping. You could:

  • Call the customer service phone number. But you’re not enthusiastic about automated phone menus, long hold times, or getting shuffled endlessly between different departments.
  • Search through the retailer’s online FAQ. Unfortunately, this can be like finding a needle in a haystack, and you’re not guaranteed to find your answer.
  • Send an email to customer support. But it could take hours or even days to receive a response. You want an answer now.

Luckily for you, the retailer has a chatbot — a computer program that gives automated responses. You fire up Facebook Messenger and find the retailer’s chatbot. You type:

“Hey, do you guys offer free shipping?”

In less than a second, the chatbot replies:

“Thanks for stopping by! We offer free shipping on all orders over $35. We’re having an online sale right now — would you like to check it out?”

Sure makes those other forms of communication seem outdated, doesn’t it?

The chatbot advantage

So, are chatbots really better than emails, FAQs and phone calls? Well, consider this:

Instead of letting the customer stew in frustration (and potentially take their money to a competitor) a company can deploy a friendly chatbot to work on their case immediately. Speed matters: 69% of consumers say good customer service means getting their problems solved quickly, according to Zendesk. A chatbot is quick on the ball because it’s automated — it doesn’t require your support team to respond at 3 a.m. It shows your customer they’re being heard right away, and for that reason it’s the perfect front-end liaison.

Speediness is also what makes chatbots superior to FAQs. The truth is, hunting through an FAQ page isn’t very fun. And the more time a customer spends without the information they need, the more friction they experience in the sales process. Chatbots reduce friction by finding the answer for the customer, who spends less time confused and more time shopping.

Many customers want quick answers, but don’t want to physically talk to a customer service rep (more on this in a sec). For some people, the chatbot offers the best of both worlds: real-time customer service and no human interaction. Brands may see significant cost savings with chatbots, as Public Tableau estimates 29% of US customer-service jobs could be automated through chatbots and other technologies at some point in the future. According to BI Intelligence, that could total $23 billion in savings just from annual salaries.

Will chatbots take over?

Of course, we have to ask whether chatbots are actually superior to human agents. Is a chatbot just a drone that gives canned responses — stumped if you misspell your question, use slang, or need service beyond simple answers? Or can a chatbot resolve complex problems as well as (or better than) a human?

In recent years, chatbots have made great strides. With Natural Language Processing (NLP), they can parse casual speech. And through machine learning, they can be trained to sort out multi-step processes. You can use a chatbot to order a pizza, check your banking history and pay friends, and even get medical advice.

However, there’s still a long way to go before chatbots take over customer service. Chatbots still have trouble when there are many variables at play. Putting in a pizza order is relatively straightforward — executing an item return is a different story. Maybe the customer wants to exchange an item, or they’ll randomly demand a discount on their next purchase. A chatbot may return inadequate answers in these scenarios, and the customer will need to talk to a real person anyway.

That said, some experts say it’s best to use chatbots as a complement to human agents — not as a replacement. For example, a chatbot can answer a customer’s basic questions and offer quick access to a human if the customer has more complex requests. At the same time, the chatbot can collect information about the customer so the human agent can personalize service.

Ultimately, chatbots aren’t just fast — they also help human representatives up their game. What’s more, they’re becoming relevant at a time when consumers are adopting messaging apps at a breakneck pace. Chatbots offer more ways to get service, and consumers will welcome the new opportunity just like they embraced email support and online chat.

Chatbots are here to stay

We’re quickly moving toward the age of customer service automation, and consumers are warming up to it. In a recent survey conducted by BI Intelligence, 44% of respondents said they’d prefer chatbots or automated processes for customer service. Clearly, many consumers aren’t exactly pining for human interaction from brands.

Take millennials, for example: Of the five most-used channels for contacting businesses, millennials like using the phone the least. Web chat and social media are significantly more popular as a contact method. We can expect this trend to accelerate with Gen Z, who live and breathe the digital world. Businesses would be smart to evolve their digital game in preparation. Luckily, brands are aware of the coming sea change in consumer preference, and they’re very open to automated technology.

This creates a perfect storm of consumers open to chatbots and businesses ready to implement them. In just a few years, chatbots will be commonplace — not just a nice-to-have, but a must-have.

At Curalate, we’re constantly staying on top of the latest trends in commerce. We help more than 800 of the world’s leading brands create compelling commerce experiences that adapt to how consumers discover products. On average, our clients achieve 79% increases in time-on-site, 16% jumps in average order value and 31% increases in conversion rate. What can Curalate do for your business? Contact us to find out.