Did the hype around bots overshadow the value of providing Customer Service via Messaging Apps?

Bots overshadowing human customer service via messaging

I asked this very question of Chris Messina on a recent Product Hunt Live Chat and he answered:

“No. I think it’s raised awareness that web pages and conventional broadcast-based social networks aren’t sufficient anymore. Bots are one way to scale your customer service, but the first step is to recognize that the impersonalization of brands via social media no longer resonates.”

As you would expect, this is a very insightful answer. I am going to dissect it into three separate parts and add my tuppence worth.

Part 1: “No” [bot hype did not overshadow the potential for offering customer service via messaging apps]

This curt “no” is the only part of Chris’s answer that I disagree with and I am daring to suggest that maybe Chris has succumbed a little to Silicon Valley’s feedback bubble [sorry Chris].

I am constantly meeting with non-tech customer facing businesses like retailers, utilities and financial institutions and in many cases it feels like they have skipped a lesson or something. I go into those meetings trying to focus on the enormous benefits of offering customer service via messaging apps, but I repeatedly get asked about bots. That in itself is not a bad thing, but coupled with the fact that many of these businesses are unaware of Messenger features such as persistent menus, subscription messaging and payments, and you can see why I ask the question.

If even 25% of the PR machine around bots had been dedicated to highlighting such features, Messenger might be a little further down the road in its quest to become the WeChat of the West, at least in terms of business interest.

Part 2: “I think it [bot hype] has raised awareness that web pages and conventional broadcast-based social networks aren’t sufficient anymore”

This part of the answer I love. Chris is credited with creating the hashtag and the term “Conversational Commerce”, so it is not too surprising that lines like this just roll off his tongue. Social networks are primarily focused on posting and consuming content with very little in the way of meaningful conversation happening, other than the odd Twitter spat involving idle minded celebrities like Donald Trump (does he still qualify as a celebrity or should he now be referred to as a politician?).

This is in direct contrast to the way messaging apps work. Messaging is a written conversation. We might send the odd video, but generally speaking people are having real conversations on WhatsApp and Messenger. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be having the exact same sort of interactions with real live customer service agents via the same medium.

Part 3: “Bots are one way to scale your customer service, but the first step is to recognize that the impersonalization of brands via social media no longer resonates”

This is on the money. Businesses constantly hunting for likes and shares has little or nothing to do with serving customers. Enabling customers to contact a business the way they like to interact with their friends does. That shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone.

Recently a few commentators have admitted that the bot hype machine was cranked up a little bit too much for where the technology is actually at today. The potential is undoubtedly enormous, as long as we don’t flog it to death before it really gets going, but NLP and AI are still not where they need to be to facilitate a full blown conversation with a human. It is not far away, but it is not here today either. Chris doesn’t really admit to this in his answer, but he certainly hints at the fact that there is a transition phase between the impersonal customer service experience offered by social networks and the future where bots will handle a large proportion of customer contact.

This phase is human based customer support via messaging apps, supported by simple bot like features and great self serve options available within the app.


In the context of customer service interactions, messaging is easy to use and efficient for both consumers and businesses. Businesses need to stop thinking about it in the context of social customer support and start seeing it for the truly personal channel it is. A little more hype around that wouldn’t go astray.

While bots are definitely a game changer, sometimes it takes time for a new player to settle into a game. Adding some simple bot interactions to enable customers complete simplified defined tasks is different from “conversations” and is something that is being done by literally thousands of developers. According to a recent Facebook developer blog post, 33,000 bots have been developed to date including “bots that can accept payments, deliver news and content, share weather updates, confirm reservations at a hotel, send receipts from a recent purchase, and more to help drive personalised, scaled experiences with customers.” That sounds more like it! Simple defined solutions to real problems.

No bots to talk you down off the ledge of a building or console you when your dog dies — yet.

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