Customer service has evolved over the years, and as a result today’s consumers have multiple channels, including phone, text, email and even social media, to ask questions and resolve problems. So it’s no surprise that many are asking if this is the year for chatbots to take off, as famously predicted last year by Jeff Pulver, Internet entrepreneur known for his pioneering work in Voice over IP (VoIP).

Many people are familiar with chatbots because of their experience with personal assistants like Apple’s Siri. Ask Siri a question and through the use of artificial intelligence, she will respond by simulating human conversation. Companies have begun using the new responsive messaging technology to interact with their customers to answer questions and simplify the sales processes.

With chatbots the conversation doesn’t necessarily have to be spoken. It can be text based (typed) and even non-verbal through the use of pictures, files and even emojis. As an example, if a customer wanted a blue tee shirt; the chatbot could present images of all the blue tee shirts in stock.

Patricio Robles describes the use of using chatbots by several leading brands in “Five pioneering examples of how brands are using chatbots, for Econsultancy. Among them is Pizza Hut who last year began accepting orders through Facebook messenger and Twitter chatbots. Sephora also launched its chatbot on Kik, a popular messaging app. The chatbot prompts Kik users to provide personal information through a quiz and responds with personalized beauty tips and product recommendations. Users also can order products that are mentioned in the chat without leaving the Kik app thereby streamlining the purchasing process.

The potential for chatbots in customer service is significant, particularly as customers are indicating their preference for text conversations.  A survey of 700 consumers by HeyWire Business, an enterprise mobile messaging service, found that 52 percent of the respondents would be likely to text with a live customer support agent and that the same percentage would prefer texting instead of their current method of reaching customer support.

While chatbots can answer simple questions, there are going to be times when a human needs to get involved to address more complex requests or troubleshoot a problem.* A noise-canceling headset can help block out background noise when a small business team member picks up the phone.

Think outside the box for chatbot use

In addition to streamlining sales or answering customer questions, there are other ways small businesses can use chatbots to stand out. Small Business Trends looks at some creative ways brands now are employing the technology:

Create a customer resource:  An example of a customer resource is the Weather Channel’s chatbot that can remember users’ zip codes so even when they ask a broad question, they get information specific to their location. Small Biz Trends points out that this type of chatbot use provides brands with geographic data on their range of customers.

Boost social media: Facebook messenger enables brands to use chatbots, providing a natural way to bolster social media engagement and attract users to a business page.

Simplify payments: Bot driven payment options, such as Snapcash from snapchat, stores a user’s card details and enables individuals to send money to friends or brands with a simple message.

As small businesses continue to improve the customer experience, chatbots are one way to be more responsive 24/7.

*On Feb. 22, Plantronics will be offering a webinar on “The future of voice in the contact center.” See details.