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Chatbots have had a tough time recently. With complaints of sluggish speed, irrelevant responses, and even downright inappropriate behavior, bots are not making AI proud — yet.

While these incidents are great material for memes, they can have disastrous consequences for companies and their bottom lines. When bots make mistakes, trust in their hosts is diminished. Bad experiences make customers suspicious — and when those bad experiences involve foul language or racism, they can ruin a business’s reputation for good.

Facebook, for example, just incorporated chatbots into its Messenger app, but users have found the bots difficult to deal with. Poncho, the weather-forecasting cat, spends a lot of his time misunderstanding and requiring the user to rephrase. Not only does he take an hour to respond, but he also seems to rely on the user’s ability to speak “chatbot” rather than adapting to the user’s language.

The irritatingly slow response time of a computerized cat is one thing; a bot spouting racism and misogyny is an entirely different scenario. It took less than 24 hours for Microsoft’s Millennial teenage bot, Tay, to turn hateful. She started tweeting racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic one-liners fed to her by internet trolls. By the time Microsoft took her offline, the damage was done.

These mainstream chatbot errors are deterring enterprises from adopting AI for their customer service strategies — and for good reason. The dream of chatbots that can replace a good human remains years out, but there are things you can do to improve the quality of your customer service today.

1. Keep it human.

SendHub doesn’t use elaborate bots because of the many core issues that arise from relying on AI before it’s ready. Instead, we offer simple tools to eliminate humans in the most repetitive places and provide strong routing tools that connect our customers with real humans after a few short steps. Keeping a strong human team is vital and saves your company the time, money, and reputation costs that faulty AI can accrue. This strategy helped lead to the recent acquisition of my company by a global tech industry leader — experts know that simple is often best.

2. Keep it convenient.

We’re all used to small levels of automation in our daily lives. Whether it’s touch screens on parking meters or self-service kiosks in McDonald’s, as long as it works and is unobtrusive, humans like software. The key is to make sure that whatever way your customers want to communicate and whichever channel they want to use, be there for them. Using the latest tech is pointless if your users have to go further to get what they want.

3. Be engaging.

Chances are you’ve already cultivated an online following, and people will respond if you’re providing something that catches their attention. Be thoughtful and fun when curating your online presence. Gauge the interests of your customers, and be sure to respond when they reach out to get the conversation going.

4. Don’t just react.

You don’t have to invest in chatbots, but don’t let your customer service become solely about reacting to problems. Be proactive, and let users know about webinars and new instruction videos — it won’t be long before you have a list of requests for the next round of content.

5. Have an opinion.

Users trust businesses more if they’re honest with them. Take a stand on timely issues in your industry, and share your reasoning. Don’t hide behind the facade of social media. Instead, use it to drive engagement and encourage people to reach out to you and join the discussion.

Chatbots sound great, and one day, they’ll be an important part of customer service strategies. But that day is not today. Even though this particular tech isn’t ready for primetime, there are plenty of ways software can make your customers’ experience better, faster, and more human. 

In what other ways do you ensure high-quality customer service?

Ash Rust is the CEO and co-founder of SendHub, the leading business SMS solution. He’s also a coach at the Alchemist Accelerator. Ash served as an officer in the British Army before studying computer science at Exeter College, Oxford. Connect with @AshRust on Twitter.

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