Chatbots: Efficiency & scale, but at what cost?

Photo from TechCrunch

Facebook recently announced they’ll be launching a new Messenger platform with chatbots — you know, the robots engineered to replace human-to-human interaction between businesses and customers on the internet. It’s pretty deft maneuvering on Facebook’s part to capitalize on this promising trend and provide the capability to brands who simply don’t have the resources in-house to develop new complex, automated response systems that align with existing internal processes, tools and strategies. To enable businesses to take advantage of this new mode of customer engagement, Facebook has vetted and selected a number of 3rd party firms to consult and do the heavy lifting required to successfully implement something so new and untested on behalf of brands. This is uncharted territory…and it’s here, now.

I get that digital and social activities need to scale in order to really move the needle in a way that’s measurable, and automating marketing tasks and operations still overwhelmingly performed by human beings is, in theory, the way to scale up. But the deep, philosophical question gnawing at me is: At what cost? And to what extent do we as marketers and salespeople outsource these operations and tasks to robots (or software platforms) before the price businesses around the world pay for automating activities that deserve the human touch and intellect of a rational being outweigh the benefits, due to lack of authentic connection and true engagement?

It’s being predicted that chatbots will replace 1–800 customer service lines, and in effect allow companies to efficiently provide exceptional customer care in the digital channels most consumers have come to prefer over more traditional mediums. Not to mention the idea of a time when chatbots, poised with automated scripts, follow and engage leads who’ve been exposed to/interacted with online ads to close the loop. Utopia!

Or is it?

I guess we’ll find out. I realize I may be coming across as a bit of a digital pessimist or an alarmist. I’m really not. Couldn’t be further from the type, actually. And I’m not paranoid about data privacy or anything like that. I relish modern technology and am a major proponent of businesses putting digital first in their strategies. (A big part of my job is driving digital transformation within a large enterprise.)

That said, I see potential for brands taking automation too far and damaging relationships with customers that should be based on shared value. We’ve already seen this happen with email marketing and other disciplines that have become automated. (How many impersonal, spammy emails do you receive in a week? How does this make you feel about the brands you receive them from?)

Perhaps the reason I’m concerned about chatbots entering the social space in particular is because the very idea seems antithetical with the spirit, principles and unwritten but well-understood rules of engagement that make social media so unique, enjoyable and valuable to brands and customers/consumers alike. I respect that everything must evolve and we as stewards of the spaces we occupy and leverage must adapt, but I guess I’m also something of a purist and don’t like seeing things that are pure become defiled in the name of “efficiency.”

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