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‘A robot is not quite a machine... A robot is a machine that is made as much like a human being as it is possible to make it,’ wrote Arthur Byron Cover.  That is precisely the number one goal of chatbot developers: to create robots that can interact naturally and effectively with humans. However, even though chatbots are a hot topic these days, they still have a long way to go before they can truly match the human touch. 

Chatbots—a new and trendy concept

If you work in marketing or customer service, you have undoubtedly heard of chatbots. They are chatting robots equipped with artificial intelligence, becoming more and more common on consumers’ computers and smartphones. They are designed to be able to hold a conversation with a human being through an instant messaging service. The idea is that these robots can provide information and respond to customer requests. 

But where did chatbots come from? The first chatbot software, called ‘Eliza,’ was created in the United States in 1966. However, interest in this very first iteration was quite limited. It wasn’t until 2015 that enthusiasm for virtual assistants spread like wildfire. At Facebook’s annual conference that year, Mark  Zuckerberg revealed his chatbot plans for his Messenger app.

Since then, chatbots have been taking off in America. Tech industry giants Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, sometimes referred to as GAFA, have all launched their own chatbots: Google with Google Home, Amazon with Echo, and Facebook with Messenger. While the capabilities of these programs are still limited, they have built up high expectations among American consumers. This interest has been like manna from heaven for the GAFA group, who see their virtual assistants as opportunities to generate even more data and advertising revenue.

And what’s the chatbot situation in Europe? According to a study from Eptica, more than 50% of French people say that they have never heard of chatbots. Only 5% of large French companies currently use them. Other European countries are not really any more advanced than France in this regard, so there’s still a long way to go for chatbots in Europe.

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The chatbot revolution hasn’t happened yet

 While some were expecting a big wave following Mark  Zuckerberg’s announcement, the chatbot revolution hasn’t happened yet. Some big companies like BlaBlaCar and H&M, however, have launched their own initiatives. These brands want to project an image of being innovative and on the cutting edge of technology, though they have struggled to really capitalise on virtual assistants. 

The main reason is that not enough progress has been made with artificial intelligence to give machines the flexibility and analytical capabilities of a human being. As such, for the time being, this AI technology is limited to sending improved notifications and responding to the most basic questions (in other words, like a smart FAQ). So, for the moment, chatbots remain a way to channel messages and provide support to customer service teams. For this reason, some are sceptical about their real usefulness at this juncture.

Robots will not replace humans

 At Critizr, we’re not particularly enthusiastic about the prediction that robots will replace humans. We think that chatbots should keep the same status that they have now in customer relationships: that is, they should assist humans. We believe that automation that cuts out people is not a viable solution.

Instead, we believe in ‘customer-centric’ businesses that consider customer relationships to be the responsibility of all employees, at every level. Customer relationships should not be restricted to a specific department within a company and each individual should be responsible for customer service. Furthermore, that’s what consumers expect: personalised interactions with businesses, reflecting care and expertise.

In a way, chatbots hinder relationships with a brand’s community. These are one-on-one relationships that you have sometimes spent several years cultivating. Even a very advanced chatbot will always provide cold, impersonal communication. Only your employees can serve as ambassadors for the values of your brand.

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In spite of significant progress with chatbots, they still lack the intelligence to truly understand customers when it comes to both their expectations and their intentions. Often, chatbots can only participate in only very brief interactions, and when your customers are asking very specific questions. 

For this reason, we believe that customer service should be handled locally. Each employee of your company should be able to respond to customers, providing specific, personalised responses. If each store manager responds to customer inquiries for their own store, the volume will be manageable and dealt with more effectively. As such, chatbot support becomes pointless.

On top of this, you can teach all of your employees about customer centricity. The French restaurant chain Flunch, which implemented a company-wide customer-centric model, can vouch for this approach. Olivier Descamps, CEO of Flunch, said of the customer centric approach: ‘Critizr allows us to connect our employees with our customers, creating a real, constructive dialogue. Customers have greater trust in our company because our store managers respond to them directly.’ Thanks to this approach, customers get a sense of personalisation and expertise that they wouldn’t be able to get from a chatbot. 

‘You can teach a computer to say “I love you,” but you cannot actually teach it to love.’ This quotation from French scientist Albert Jacquard sums up our feelings about chatbots. At Critizr, we prefer more personal relationships with customers. Virtual assistants should remain just a support tool for humans, and not the other way around!

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