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How to build a no-code SMS bot with AtBot

you’re familiar with AtBot, you know that it’s super easy to “code” a chatbot to automate everyday tasks using Power Automate. (And if you’re not familiar with AtBot, you’re going to want to check it out.)

Until now, the way you’d experience AtBot as a user is through Microsoft Teams, on a website, or maybe in a mobile app. Each of these requires you to go someplace, or even download an application.

But one ubiquitous communication method out there trumps all in ease of use, and that’s texting. Thankfully, AtBot’s got you covered in the realm of SMS-based AI.

Using the Twilio channel in Microsoft Bot Framework, you can enable your bot to accept and respond to text messages.

A bot running on Web Chat and SMS (using Twilio) in the Azure portal.

If you prefer visual learning, check out the video guidance below which will run you through all the steps from starting a Twilio account to testing an actual Skill. If you prefer to read through the instructions, skip the video and keep reading.

Get yourself a Twilio account

You’ll need a Twilio account to get started. Twilio is a paid service, but it’s extremely cheap in its per-message pricing. That said, they offer a handy free trial that comes with a certain amount of credit and doesn’t expire. You’ll get a dedicated phone number that your users will text to and receive texts from.

Twilio’s easy-to-use portal gets you up and running very quickly. And for free, to start.

Let’s build the SMS bot

Creating an SMS bot isn’t much different than making a web or Teams bot. Just make sure you have that Twilio account for routing the text messages. Here are the steps:

  1. Register your bot in Azure following these steps.
  2. Connect your bot to the Twilio channel using these steps.
  3. Create you SMS bot in the AtBot Admin Portal. If you haven’t signed up for AtBot’s premium bot offerings, use our Jump Start Guide to get going. AtBot’s SMS bots cost $5 USD per 1,000 bot messages ($4 USD for gov, edu, and non-profit organizations).
  4. Build your Skills with Power Automate and LUIS and add knowledge and conversations with QnA Maker.
  5. Test it out with your phone!

Use cases

There are a lot of great reasons to use SMS instead of a web-based bot. For one, everyone has a texting app on their mobile device and they all know how to use them. Texting to a number is universal knowledge in the tech era, so you can benefit a lot from that scenario.

But here are a few explicit examples:

  • Provide travel status updates from travel agencies, travel-based companies, or booking services like Concur or others. Internally at your company, you could connect to your third-party cloud apps to send automatic updates to employees about travel delays, reminders, or anything else related to a trip.
  • Finance-related notifications can be sent to people in your finance and accounting departments when certain transactions take place — or don’t. From the outside, you can also provide customers information on their finances if you’re in that industry. Account balances, transfers, or other account information like routing numbers could be a text away.
  • Any municipality can benefit from receiving or sending smart city reports and notifications. Ask residents to report utility problems, street repair requests, broken traffic lights, and other non-emergency reports. And remember, this can all be done hands-free in a car. From the municipality end, you can easily contact your residents about new services, reminders to vote, or when a boil water advisory goes out. Your bot is able to respond easily to follow-up questions in a way no communications department ever could.
  • Let your customers follow order status via your text bot. Let customers know their order is in process and provide them a number to text to request status updates.
  • Customer service is one of the easiest things to automate with bots, and texting makes it that much easier to take advantage of. Be able to answer your most common questions, kick off the highest-value workflows, and more with your customer care text bot.

Best practice considerations

  • Keep your bot messages short, even shorter than in normal chat. It’s difficult to read longer messages via text than it is in Teams or on a website.
  • Make the most of LUIS Intent Vectors because they help you clarify your users’ needs in a communication platform that errs on the side of brevity (therefore less information provided to your bot). IVs ensure all the necessary data is garnered before kicking off any workflows.
  • Use a URL shortener to shorten URLs before they get sent in a response, if possible. Hypertext (i.e., having a word link to a URL, usually using an href HTML tag) isn’t supported in SMS, so you’ll have the full URL displayed in the text. The shorter the URL, the easier it is to read and the less it overtakes the other content of the message.
  • In the US, Twilio provides you a standard 11-digit phone number, but you can upgrade to a short code. Short codes are easier to remember for your customers and users.

Caveats

  • Buttons don’t work in SMS, so you can’t use actionable answers.
  • SMS supports adaptive cards and they may actually be a better way to send a lot of information at once, in a clean and understandable way. Just note that they are sent as images (not text) and you won’t be able send them in a carousel.
  • Send choice reply actions continue to work even though buttons don’t show. Instead, Twilio will send the question first, then a list of responses with an auto-generated numbering in front of the choices. The recipient can respond with the number of the choice to provide feedback.
  • The word “Help” is reserved for Twilio and won’t bring up the bot’s help menu. Instead, provide a help message in you QnA Maker conversations.

AtBot brings AI within reach

AtBot is the premiere bot-as-a-service solution for the Microsoft cloud. Built completely within Azure, AtBot is your out-of-the-box, easy-to-configure bot for Teams, SharePoint, or the web. Teach AtBot tasks using Power Automate, make him your corporate source of knowledge with QnA Maker, help him understand almost anything your colleagues could ask thanks to LUIS, and manage his features with the AtBot Admin Portal. Get going with AtBot Free or start your free trial of AtBot Premium today.

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Matt Wade

Microsoft MVP • Office 365 & Microsoft Teams specialist • NY→USVI→DC→NY