I don't know anyone who doesn't have some horror story about trying to get support from a call center. First there are the hideous menu-trees to struggle through and game (0-0-0-#-#-#). Then there's the wait to speak with a human being which, if you're lucky, they'll even estimate for you. Then there is the actual human being, claiming to be "Brian" when you know full-well he's sitting behind a console in Bangalore. If you are really fortunate, Brian will know what he's talking about and be really helpful. If not, well...we've all lived that hell now, haven't we.
Thus, I read an article on chatbots in The Economist (March 10, 2007) with some interest.
Chatbots are "conversational software programs" which
...aim to supplement and even replace human operators with software that can understand ordinary conversational language and thus deal with calls more efficiently.
IBM's "speech analytics" software listens in on actual call-center conversations checking for keywords that can help the CRM answer the caller's question.
The keywords are used to search the knowledge base and quietly make suggestions to the operator, so speeding things up.
As anyone who has been through the call center wringer following CRM suggestions that you know are useless and stupid ("Have you tried tapping your teeth and blinking twice?") while the CRM stalls for time, the idea of "speeding things up" is a good one.
In addition to software that assists call center personnel, systems are being developed to replace them. Some companies are already using these for online typed-in support conversations, and there are chatbots being designed that can actually "hold" a conversation.
I remember many years ago (early 1980's, mainframe days) when there was a "conversational" program - I think it was called Liza - that you could ask questions to and get stilted answers. It was sort of a geek sex talk thing, very primitive. Some of the online chatbots aren't much better. I chatted with one and asked whether it was lying about something. Clearly keying off the word "lie", it answered "Well, you can't handle the truth."
Maybe so, but that particular chatbot couldn't handle a real conversation.
I did quickly check out Jabberwacky, the chatbot site of Rollo Carpenter, an engineer featured in the The Economist article. I didn't have much time to play there, but it looked very interesting, and you can create your own bot there for only $30 a year. It can talk to Jabberwack itself, or to your friends bots. Yikes. (Is it live or is it Memorex?)
Of course, chatbots are best used in the predictable, structured environment of the call center where things aren't all that free-form. A support question is, after all, a support question.
One interesting thing noted in the article was that chatbots are going to have to know how to handle abuse. Where a chatbot is identified with a gender, females get more abuse than males, and black females get the most abuse of all. Nice, huh? (This finding was based on a study by Sheryl Brahnam of Missouri State University.)
It will be interesting to see where all this chatting-up by chatbots ends. I'm all for it when it comes to augmenting or even replacing much of the functions of a call center. I call a call center when I want an answer, not a relationship. Given the periodic frustrations we all have with call centers, I'm sure that there will still be human beings who can be called upon when a bit of nerve soothing is required.
But I don't see chatbots replacing human-to-human interaction anytime soon. I did, however, read somewhere about chatbot "pets" that are being introduced in Japan to provide companionship to the elderly. That I find completely dispiriting. Sure, we all need a kind word on occasion, but wouldn't it be nice to know that the kind word was coming from a fellow human being and not a machine.