When you type a message into the chat function on a brand’s website, there is usually a real person at the other end to pick it up and respond to it. However, recent technological developments have meant this no longer needs to be the case – in fact, you could well be talking to a bot. Bots are not actually new technology.
Indeed, they were developed for healthcare back in the 1960s (although back then they obviously didn’t involve the internet). The worldwide web, though, has proved to be the ideal breeding ground for the programs and as such, they are proliferating as a tool for companies to improve their customer service while cutting overheads. Travel is no different and bots in this industry are artificial intelligence platforms with information on everything from flight times to cheap hotels in the US contained within them. For instance, Virgin Holidays’ ‘Valerie’ is able to respond to typed queries such as ‘what films are showing on my flight?’ and ‘what is it like to visit Dubai?’. She can answer questions 24 hours a day and is said to be considerably reducing the number of routine queries that go through the company’s call centres, which is resulting in savings at the same time as boosting customer satisfaction levels.
Furthermore, bots can be ideal for companies that are growing frustrated with training up human beings in customer service, only to find that they leave for another job a few months later and cause the whole process to start again. A number of other big-name brands have begun to try out bots too, including Skyscanner and Expedia, providing a way for customers to start a conversation with them at the very start of the booking process. For instance, they might be able to input their preferred travel dates and destination and see the bot come up with a list of holidays that fit their requirements, allowing them to narrow down their research from the beginning. They can then make the booking themselves in the same way as they would previously, whereupon the bot crops up again to confirm their booking and provide a link to their itinerary.
Of course, bots are not yet foolproof because artificial intelligence hasn’t progressed to that level at the moment. There are already famous examples of bots failing spectacularly to interpret their users’ requests, including one on Twitter that began to respond in kind to the abuse it had seen on the site. This is why, in the travel industry, bots are still being supported by human customer service staff; if something comes up that they can’t compute, someone steps in before the customer gets frustrated.
With Facebook having introduced bots in spring 2016, they are once again flavour of the month and high on the customer service agenda for many travel brands. Perhaps even the smallest hotels could one day have bots managing queries via their hotel website design and saving them money on staffing levels. Although bots as ubiquitous might still be some way off, perhaps hotel owners and marketers could begin looking into them now and even testing them internally. That way, when the AI revolution begins, they’ll be ready.