Why and how to use AI assistants for small business customer service.

I own a small business. I’m in the business of providing Tech consulting and development services, and while the specifics may be different from your own business, one fact remain the same across the board for us entrepreneurs and business owners: We need to show our customers we care for them, by listening to them and giving them answers to their questions or concerns.

Pepper the robot provides AI based customer service.
Pepper the robot provides AI based customer service.
Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

At first, when you’re starting out, you may have more time on your hands than you’d like and you’re likely to be eager to help personally as best as possible each and every one of your new clients. However, as your business grows, and your volume of work increases, reality dictates that your limited time has to be put into specific things, while other tasks need to be delegated. You can’t delegate strategy making. You can’t delegate financial oversight. So one of the obvious aspects of the business to be delegated at first is customer service.

In Japan, where they have important labor shortages, they use robots like Pepper, pictured above, to provide AI based customer service. While possible elsewhere in the world, the business case for using actual robots is still shaky in most places; instead, you’ll be better off hiring humans.

But then, you’ll come across a major challenge in the small business world: Hiring motivated help, that is knowledgeable enough and who cares enough to communicate effectively with the customers. Now, there are some strategies for that, and it’s certainly not an insurmountable problem, specially if you have some extra cash and can afford to pay more to your people. That always helps. However, there’s another aspect to this situation: Often, new potential customers, will ask the same things over and over again. Even if you have them published on your website, some people will still call or email and ask them, and no human is prepared to answer the same question 100 times a day without going crazy. Obviously at that point your motivated employee will either quit or just won’t care anymore, either way hurting your levels of customer service.

Considering the above, I advocate the use of AI Assistants for customer service, not as a replacement of human operators, but as a supplementary tool, specially useful if you’re business is such that you get the same queries over and over by existing or potential customers. Here are some examples, of the top of my mind:

Hotels

Typical queries: Where are the towels? At what time does the pool closes? What does breakfast includes? Can I bring my dog? What’s the room service number?

Department Stores

Typical queries: Where are the restrooms? And the changing rooms? The men’s shoe section? Can I leave my bag somewhere? Is there a restaurant inside?

Supermarkets

Typical queries: Where is product X ?

Banks

Typical queries: What’s the nearest bank office? What are their business hours? Does it have an ATM machine?

I’m sure that by now, you can probably think about several examples of typical questions asked by your customers. So the idea here is to gather together an structured source of knowledge, that is, a database of questions and answers, and join it with thethe NLP engine (Natural Language Processing) of an AI assistant.

You still need to publish a FAQ, but people will want some sort of interaction regardless.

The above is precisely what sets Assistants apart from more traditional text based solutions, like a FAQ. You still need to publish a FAQ, but people will want some sort of interaction regardless, for two reasons:

  1. Nobody likes to read or search in pages.

But just put yourself in the place of the poor hotel reception person who has to tell people 100 times a day the location of the towels. To be clear, I’m not promoting here that you get rid of your staff. I’m promoting that you make them more productive by giving them a tool to free their time from the most mundane and repetitive tasks, thus letting them focus their human intelligence on problems that are beyond the capabilities of machines to solve.

For example, an AI assistant can tell you the location of the towels on a hotel, but it cannot decide whether a claim of stolen goods has merit. It cannot do anything about a complain of noise (other than forward it to a human for review and resolution) and it most certainly cannot make feel the guests welcome, since ultimately, it’s an impersonal robot. But, by freeing your staff’s time you can improve their outlook and guide them to focus on improving the quality of the customer experience in uniquely human ways, ON TOP of the improvement that your customer has already gotten from having prompt, accurate answers.

Put yourself in the place of the poor hotel reception person who has to tell people 100 times a day the location of the towels

Customers can interface with your AI assistant via common chat channels, like Facebook’s Messenger, Skype, and Twitter. It’s also possible to integrate them into chat widgets directly on your website. And their beauty lies precisely in their ability to reasonably understand “normal” written text (or spoken phrases) and come up with appropriate responses.

So, a hotel can have an AI assistant that connects to a database of structured answers, and upon receiving a question on Facebooks’ Messenger, come up promptly with the correct answer. “Certainly, the towels are located next to the stairs on the right side of the building. From the front door, proceed to the hallway…”

You can also give them a “Brand appropriate” personality by carefully choosing the wording of the answers, for example, consider the following two answers:

A “butler”-type response: “Of course, sir, the towels are located at the right. Would you like me to dispatch someone to bring them to you?”

A “friendly”-type response: “Sure, go to the right of the entrance and right there. Anything else you need, just send me another message.”

So, not only can you solve the customer’s question, but you can also use the opportunity to strengthen your brand message in a consistent way.

One final consideration is that, since all businesses are different, you’ll definitely need a custom implementation to provide the right answers in the right tone, to the specific questions your business gets.

So, not only can you solve the customer’s question, but you can also use the opportunity to strengthen your brand message in a consistent way.

The good news is that the technology provided by the likes of Google or IBM is sufficiently advanced and cost effective that the implementation price should be well within the means of established small businesses. Do consider however, that ultimately they’re also not perfect, and there’ll be occasions where the AI Assistant will be unable to solve a customer’s query and thus will have to refer them to a human.

In conclusion, with careful design and periodic review and improvement, you can reap the productivity benefits offered by AI assistants, while at the same time providing better experiences for both your employees and customers and do so, in a cost-effective way.

Tech Consultant helping Founders and Entrepreneurs get their first product out, as well as establishing solid operational procedures. http://saft.industries

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