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April 4, 2019
Building Better Chatbots
Chatbots are software configured, programmed and embedded in messenger apps, websites and SMS to replicate or simulate human conversation. A chatbot maintains a conversation with a user in natural language, understands the intent of the user, and responds based on business rules, stored responses or data from the business. Powered by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), Natural Language Processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML), these robots connect to the Internet and mobile structures using APIs which give them immediacy and regular updates. 

Principally deployed on SMS and messenger platforms, like Facebook Messenger, WeChat, What’s App, Telegram or Slack platforms that have become more popular than SMS or social media, they are on-call 24/7/365 and generally can anticipate and respond to frequently asked questions, routine inquiries, common complaints and basic transactions like sales, returns, reservations and subscriptions. 

Building a bot strategy requires a series of choices and decisions which impact directly on engagement and customer satisfaction. Aligning a chatbot with the brand personality and promise is important for continuity, to influence the customer experience and/or facilitate or accelerate the customer journey. Anticipating many questions asked many ways with answers that address multiple audiences with various interests and intentions is a colossal task.

Consider seven factors in planning and building your chatbot.

Define a Clear Objective. Start with a clear understanding of what the bot should do mechanically and emotionally. In most cases, the objective will be to engage people quickly and effectively to assist them in getting answers, finding content or connecting to humans. Determine what you want those interacting with your bot to think, feel and do. Then configure the software accordingly.

Contextualize the Role in CX Strategy. Bots play a role in the customer journey and in a tiered brand response plan. If the chatbot is your first line of interaction or defense, it will address the most obvious and frequently asked questions. Try to imagine what level of curiosity, angst, frustration or confusion users might face as they interact with the bot. Urgency and emotion will help determine tone and functionality. Plot the most likely use cases and take a hard-edged look at the content or navigation that led a person to your bot. 

According to Isabella Steele, chatbots should introduce themselves and give users a clue about available functionality. Similarly, by giving users instructions for interacting with the chatbot, users will stay on track, ask the right kind of questions and be much happier with the experience.

Focus on Brand Alignment. A chatbot is an extension of your brand. It should reflect brand values and brand personality. A directive or authoritative brand will choose language, voices, tone, and cadence to reinforce an authoritative posture. A breezy or friendly brand will do the same making different choices to reflect its unique gestalt.

Choose Graphics Purposefully. Humans relate to other humans. On one hand, you want to create immediate recognition and interaction. On the other hand, you want to make it clear to users they are not talking or texting with a human being. Finding the right image is a branding and philosophical choice. In many cases, the choice is avoided by the design of a chat window. In other cases, populating the chat window with a human face can spark more humane conversations.

Scope the FAQs. To respond quickly you must decide on the number, type, tone, length, and depth of questions and answers. Since most brands can anticipate or measure the 20 most asked questions, it’s a good place to start, keeping in mind that there are probably 3-4 ways to ask these same 20 questions. 

Answers should be short, clear, factual and on-point. Answers can be links to other content which might better explain or flesh out responses. KPIs for chatbots should be one-click resolution and high customer satisfaction.

The bot relationship should accelerate the customer journey and add to an appreciation of the brand. Carefully consider your “no answer” answer; the response to unprogrammed or unusual questions. Replies to these anomalies can change the perception of your brand. 

Plan the Experience.Is the friction of soliciting information or an email address better or worse than an anonymous session? Bots can capture data and be personalized. But do these added steps enhance the experience, deepen the relationship or increase customer satisfaction? Most bot interactions are fleeting not sustained. In most cases, instant gratification ought to be the guiding light.  
Assume users will be talking face-to-face with a representative. That’s your bot in action. Think about the tone, word choice, cadence and presentation style that will mirror and/or resonate with your customer base. Imagine and role play the conversation with the idea of finding the hiccups or sticking points. Plan on creating short, snappy, snackable responses that inform and educate users. And make it easy to bail out for any and all reasons.
Choose the Right Voice.According to Stanford professor James Landay, speech recognition is three times faster than typing into a cell phone, which intensifies thinking about the voice of your chatbot and brand. My former colleague, Lou Killeffer, points out the need for “sonic branding” insisting that brands create an “audio logo” to differentiate themselves in a voice-driven world. Naming your chatbot is the first step in aligning with your brand positioning and personality. 

Male, female, neutral, mechanical or cartoon-y voices trigger stored perceptions and emotions. Take a cue from Siri and Alexa who play on cultural, and probably sexist, stereotypes of women as helpful customer service representatives. Research suggests that male voices communicate authority while female voices offer warmth and empathy. Choose carefully in line with the attitudes and expectations of your client base.

Chatbots require as much brand and engagement planning as programming legerdemain. Bots can add to or subtract from the customer experience based on the choices marketers make.


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Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.
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