Digital conversation apps, also known as chatbots, are here to stay. If your company isn’t using one–or isn’t using one to its fullest potential–now is the time to implement a chatbot that solves customer problems quickly and reduces demand on your call center.
Chatbots are the way of the future. Rather, they’re already dominating the present–by improving the way customers interact with service providers. From credit card companies to ride-share services, businesses of all types are finding success with the use of website chatbots.
According to Customer Think, chatbots allow companies to:
- Reduce call center volume,
- Focus human brain power on more complex cases,
- Save money,
- Assist customers with issues outside of normal business hours, and
- Handle spikes in customer inquiries.
Why have chatbots gained recent popularity?
Also known as digital assistants or conversation apps, chatbots are not humans–at least, not usually. They are A.I.-enabled features of a company’s website that work to shepherd customers through a menu of common inquiries and solve their problems quickly.
While this interactive digital tool has been around for several years, some marketing experts proclaimed 2020 as the “Year of the Chatbot.” That’s because utility companies, banks, unemployment offices and many other types of organizations saw an influx of panicked customers reaching out for assistance throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. In response, they put chatbots to work for help wading through the avalanche of calls.
Businesses that already had chatbots, or could implement them quickly, alleviated stress on their call centers drastically and solved a higher number of customer problems in less time than the call center could. The integrated bots were able to handily walk customers through helpful menus that answered common questions such as:
- “What is my account balance?”
- “When is my bill due?”
- “I need help paying my bill!”
- “Can I get an extension on my due date?”
- “Why am I being charged a late fee?”
The call center conundrum during Covid
In addition, Contact Center Pipeline explains that call centers are losing their luster, especially during trying times like we’ve lived through for the past year.
“For customers already facing myriad pressures and frustrations,” they say, “the [call center] experience can be truly awful—and it’s no better for the overwhelmed rep on the other end of the phone line.”
Moreover, physical distancing protocols issued throughout the pandemic meant companies had to pivot. They needed fewer call center employees to be working at one time, or they had to set employees up with equipment so they could work from home. In the midst of that early transition, chatbots held the line, guiding customers toward solutions when human employees couldn’t.
Freeing up the phone lines also meant call center representatives could focus on more complex customer issues that required human problem-solving skills.
Who actually uses chatbots?
Data indicates that, with or without the pandemic, chatbots are here to stay. Hubspot reports that 71% of people are open to engaging with a chatbot. Small Biz Genius says, “more than half of internet users are satisfied with [chatbots] and around 60% of millennials already use them regularly to purchase basic goods.”
Chatbots Life notes that, according to Gartner’s 2020 Hype Cycle report, “…chatbots are expected to have a 100% increase in adoption in the next 2–5 years ahead before reaching a plateau of productivity. The technology increased from 20% to 50% adoption since last year.”
And where, exactly, will the chatbot hotspot of tomorrow be?
“North America is expected to be the leading region in terms of adopting and developing conversational AI,” says Andy Peart, Marketing expert.
So, there’s a very high chance your customers are willing to use–or already are engaging with–chatbots right now. Which begs the question: how can service providers optimize their chatbot, or start using one, as soon as possible?
How can utilities optimize chatbots?
Chatbots are of particular interest to the energy sector right now. Utility providers are currently managing millions of customers who are experiencing power outages caused by snow and ice storms across the U.S., and simultaneously anticipating the end of Covid-related shutoff moratoriums as warmer weather draws near.
That means now is a critical time to put a chatbot to work–or, if your company has already done so, to make your chatbot smarter, solving customers’ most common issues more quickly.
The end of Covid moratoriums threatens to overwhelm call centers with customers panicked by high bills and termination notices. Our research shows that those who may be inclined to reach out to the call center are very likely going to be the same customers who have had trouble paying their bills in the past.
In order for utilities to optimize their chatbots for use by those customers, we recommend three things. First, get a handle on who’s typically using your website and call center the most. Learn who made a habit of calling before the moratorium was in place. And take note of why they were calling.
Optimizing chatbots for customers who have missed payments
Compare customer outreach frequency against historical payment and energy usage data, as we have done using Customer Balance Risk Zones. This exercise should give you an idea of whether a customer is likely to reach out again in the coming months, and why.
Case Study Download: How one utility generated a 47% increase in full payments from delinquent accounts
Look for clues in your data such as:
- How many times has this customer paid late in the year (or years) prior to Covid?
- If they typically pay late, how late (30 days? 90 days? longer?)
- Has this customer ever been enrolled in a payment assistance program?
- Has this customer ever asked for an extension on their payment due date?
- What’s the customer’s average monthly energy usage, and how does that compare with the rest of your customer base?*
*Higher-than-average energy usage often indicates low-quality housing stock, poor insulation, leaky doors or windows, and old, energy-guzzling appliances. It may suggest the customer is a renter, does not have control over the thermostat, or doesn’t otherwise have a say in making weatherization upgrades.
Payment and usage data will guide you to understanding who could be reaching out to customer service about a potential shutoff this spring. It also highlights an opportunity for driving chatbot engagement. Target these struggling customers and share messages about the option to use your chatbot, should they have a need to reach out.
In order to optimize your chatbot functionality, analyzing your call center data even further is key. Utilizing A.I.-enabled predictive analytics can help you dig deeper into your data to find out:
- What issues and programs are customers calling about the most?
- Do these customers share any common demographic traits?
- Which media channels do these customers use most?
Answering these questions with data-driven customer personas enables your company to offer targeted options in your chatbot menu. With useful menu options, you can direct people to the programs they show interest in. Simply put, if a lot of people are calling to request payment extensions, create an option to do that in your chatbot.
Target customers who are open to using new technology
Openness to new technology is, as you would expect, an important indicator of chatbot adoption. What might come as a surprise is that, according to the data, many of the same low-income or struggling customers are likely to be more tech-savvy than you think.
Deeper insights about customers’ overall lifestyles and behavior, if you’re able to acquire them through the integration of third-party data, will reveal more clearly whether they’re open to using a chatbot.
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What we know is that many low-income customers who frequently use online social platforms such as Facebook, and who like using cell phones (especially for text and other mobile apps), are more likely than others to use a chatbot.
Younger customers, too, who have grown up in a digital environment and are struggling the most to pay their bills right now, will make great fits for chatbot use. Many may already be visiting your website frequently to use paperless billing.
Driving website engagement with age-40-and-under customers, and giving them the option to address billing issues via chatbot, is therefore an obvious alternative to them using your call centers. After all, these are the same customers who would most likely prefer not to speak to a human about their bills, anyway.
Would Customers Actually Sign Up for Energy Assistance Using a Text Bot? Absolutely!
Companies across sectors can go much deeper into deriving data-backed insights to illuminate who their customers really are. They can also learn how and where their customers most want to be served. Knowing this will alleviate pressure on call centers. And it can also transform negative touchpoints on the customer journey–such as customer payment defaults–into positive experiences with your company.
If you’re interested in driving higher engagement of your chatbot or another customer engagement tool, we’d love to hear from you. Shout at us here, sign up for BlastCast, our weekly e-newsletter, and make sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!