Thinking Outside the Bot With Intercom’s Answer Bot

Monday, November 19, 2018
Christopher Sirk
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Consumer expectations for real-time interactions online are pretty huge these days. They’re exposing the limitations of human agents. Bots have emerged as an option to ramp up efficiency.

Intercom, for one, is backing them hard. The customer communication platform, first released way back in 2011, helped change how businesses do customer engagement online.

However as the company places yet another big bet on the future use of automated service agents, are they entering a canary in the coal mine-situation?

At their Next Chapter keynote last month, Intercom assertively argued that the future is in automation. They also unveiled their shiniest new bot, Answer Bot.

Intercom product leader Matt Hodges, for one, thinks this freshly launched bot “will fundamentally change the sales and support landscape.”  

Thinking outside the bots: the exciting history of customer service

Lest you think the impact of this whole ‘bots thing’ sounds outlandish, it’s always smart to contextualize the machine learning and automation technologies that underpin them, vis-a-vis the grand history of telecommunications.

Let’s take the phone, for example. We don’t need to go Alexander Graham Bell-far back, but it’s important to remember that phones, and later faxes, formed the backbone of 20th-century globalization.

Phones changed our day-to-day lives dramatically, in terms of work, buying stuff, dating, and every other pattern of human behavior.

Then, after a while, businesses mastered these technologies for marketing to the point it became extremely annoying — like, who answers calls from unknown numbers anymore?

When it comes to the internet, customer service bottomed out sometime around 2010 — businesses were over-marketing in nasty overblown ways, bombarding people with spam emails, pressure-sale calls, and setting up hoop-jumping customer service flows, feeding into chats with sales agents trained to deliver scripted encounters.

The customer service industry has been rebuilding ever since.

And so things will change dramatically, yet again. The big sweep of technological change since industrialization is being directed at increasing efficiency and intimacy. Bots just seem logical.

Bots are all about customer experience, as well as scaling. They don’t need to be paid to do stuff, because they aren’t sentient (as of yet). If you can delegate tasks to them and free up human team members from repetitive tasks so that they can focus on the more intimate cases. That’s a huge boost for your business from the perspective of cost analysis and overall efficiency.

Where the Intercom Answer Bot fits in

Intercom has been in the bot game for a while yet. Their Operator bot has grown up over the years to comprise a family of conversational bots.

Previously relegated to marketing duties, Intercom’s automation technology can now handle support duties too, with the release of Answer Bot.

All Intercom’s bots are all designed to fit into their Messenger platform, which itself is striving towards a totally automated user experience. Intercom’s latest version of Messenger operates an integrated communication experience that goes way beyond ‘chat,’ with app integrations aplenty.

You can change from text to voice in Messenger itself with Aircall and Google Meet integrations, for example. You can also trigger screen sharing apps like Median and Upscope, so customers can share their desktop and receive intelligent, effective guidance on troubleshooting.

Intercom’s Operator bots can ask a person their name, company, company size, etc. and then schedule them an appointment with a human customer service rep. Bots collect data and take action with it. Custom bots, according to existing data, already provide a boost in engagement rates by 300%.

Each lead can be funneled by bots into an actionable outcome, meaning that you can generate follow-up actions that take place post-bot.

The bots will ideally be able to determine the lead’s fit and direct them accordingly towards further ‘nurturing’ information, a free trial, or the sales team if they seem almost for sure ready to buy. Very soon, bots will also ‘triage’ support requests, helping prioritize the most situation-critical clients for you.

Answer Bot fits into this ecosystem as a new trainable bot. It understands when similar questions get asked by taking information from old conversations. You can also control what it says so that it answers in a way that matches your brand and policies.  

Answer Bot also looks at old conversations in Intercom to figure out what repeatedly asked and answered questions should receive automated responses. Integration with Zendesk Chat also lets it suggest Q&A sessions to automate from there.

If the customer’s question is confusing, or maybe it’s just a disjointed rant of some kind, Answer Bot can chat with the customer to draw them out. When the question has been figured out, Answer Bot will then answer it, in addition to providing relevant help articles within the chat window itself to link out for next steps.

Just like Intercom’s other bots, Answer Bot is able to provide apps within answers too. That means you can have the bot relay them to an app tracking their order status, get them to schedule a product demo, or register them for a webinar.

Based on Intercom’s internal research, Answer Bot can definitively answer 29% of customer questions and cut your overall response time by 44%. If these results are reproducible on the ground at your own business, that is indeed massive.

Answer Bot doesn’t have all the answers yet, but it’s getting there

All that said, bots have gotten a bad rap so far.

During the Next Chapter keynote, Intercom’s CEO and co-founder Eoghan McCabe threw some serious shade on a few nameless automation tools on the market, saying they’re all about KPIs. As a result, they’re short-sighted, and provide the kind of bot services that are “the hallmark of a shitty brand.”

But Intercom thinks that ignoring bot automation is a really bad idea, and companies that don’t come to terms with it will end up like those poor, poor companies who dismissed the internet as too sketchy and/or too niche when it started gaining traction in the early 90s.

These days people expect a business to get back to them the same day, or even within the same hour. In the attempt to keep up with this dramatically increasing consumer demand, businesses are put into a tight spot. Either you hire more people to meet demand, which is often not cost-feasible, or you drive your existing team harder, which of course is unsustainable.

To avoid a total company meltdown, maybe the answer is indeed, after all, some manner of Answer Bot.

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