I've seen many fads mislabeled as "innovations" during my 20 years running LivePerson. That's why this new buzz about bots following Mark Zuckerberg's F8 announcement last month isn't a surprise. What once lived only in a sci-fi fantasy has now gone into the mainstream, but bad bot behavior is just as negative as a bad phone experience, and brands need to be careful if they're going to get it right.

Companies everywhere are quick to add bots to their game plan, but they're far from a golden ticket for customer service. Brands that use bots tactfully will not only streamline their business, but they'll come out on top, too. Consider these four tips before integrating bots into your brand strategy.

1. Your social reach is a critical advantage. Facebook's investment in bots means big things for businesses looking to connect with customers on social. How the consumer regards social networking is ever-evolving, and as their minds (and wallets) open, social paves the way for new opportunities. Whether your fan base is a small, tight-knit group of devotees or you have clout around the world, you have a captive audience more accessible than ever. Take advantage of your network to forge even more meaningful interactions. The consumer is ready.

2. Embrace the learning curve. Brands, customers, and bots alike have a lot to learn moving forward. The bot concept is nothing new--before we called them "virtual assistants," and they were a total failure: They tried to solve problems they had no business in solving. Today, brands have the opportunity to educate customers on the best use of bots--and when they'll need a live person instead. Brands now have the opportunity to decide how customers interact with their bots and establish expectations. The best-of-breed bots become more intelligent with age and can adapt based on human behavior and real conversations. You should have a platform in place to process all AI interactions and provide real-time insights your business can grow from.

3. When bots fail, you need a human. Bots are more capable than ever before, but they're still largely script-based, making them no better than traditional IVR systems at the end of the day. Automated bots cannot solve user-specific problems. They have no context for user-specific stories and emergencies, and you can't form a real relationship with a bot. There are still situations only a real, live person can handle. The most effective campaigns marry the best from both worlds--putting bots to use for the mundane tasks like taking orders and recording shipping information and relying on humans for more complicated endeavors, like handing a disgruntled customer or a sensitive negotiation. Empathy is key in building a connection with customers, and that's something only a human can offer. Brands that don't show their empathetic side, will see customers go elsewhere. Conversely, empathetic interactions drive customer loyalty.

4. Bots free up your people for the real work. There's a time and a place for bots, which are programmed to handle the simpler requests and automating the busy work. Having them take reservations or place orders opens up time in your employees schedules to handle any complex requests that come in. They should be seen--and used--as tools of empowerment, not replacements for the people on your front lines of customer care. Whenever a conversation needs to be elevated from a bot interaction, make sure your customer care team has the tools they need to seamlessly manage that transition. That means having a full summary of the issue available for them to review before taking control of the situation so the customer doesn't need to repeat the process again.

Are bots the next phase for the web?
If phase one was organizing information (Google), and phase two was building a vast community online (Facebook), we're now entering the third phase. Some say this is the bot revolution. While it's true that we are at a precipice of change in web communication, this goes beyond bots. Bots are a part of the evolution--a logical next step in but only one part of forging customer relationships. A means to an end, not an end in itself.

I'm excited for the continued evolution of bots as they become more intelligent and let people dedicate their valuable time to the activities that truly need it. Because without a live person guiding the process, no real connection can take place.

 

Published on: May 25, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.