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Chatbots for Small Business: A Guide to Improving Customer Experience

Arnav Patel
unsplash image of phone with chat

This post comes courtesy of Arnav Patel of TARS.

Chatbots are red hot in the world of business. It seems like every single day, a new multinational corporation is rolling out a chatbot system that promises to take the company’s customer experience to the next level. Gartner even estimates that 25% of all customer interactions will take place through a chatbot by 2020

After having worked in the industry for over three years now, I can honestly say that the majority of this buzz is unfounded. Most businesses choose to adopt chatbots today just because everyone else is doing so, and the end result is usually a poorly constructed piece of software that over promises and underperforms.

Of course, this doesn’t have to be the case. At the center of all this hype, there lies a kernel of truth. At a conceptual level chatbots can offer businesses real benefits, but seeing those benefits is wholly contingent on the way you apply the technology. In this guide, I will give you a comprehensive primer on everything you need to know about chatbots so that you can approach the technology in the correct way and truly take your customer experience to the next level.


What is a Chatbot?

I’ve found that a good starting point for discussions like these is the definition of the term.

Put simply, a chatbot is:

A piece of software that mimics a human conversation with users, usually to sell a product or service.

This definition is workable and captures 90% of what people think of when they hear the word chatbot, but I will make one tweak to this for the purposes of this guide.

I’m going to restrict my definition in the rest of this guide primarily to online chatbots. This means that rather than being a piece of software that lives anywhere, you should think of chatbots as an alternative to your landing pages and website. 

For example, if you run Google Ads, you can put your website, a custom landing page or a chatbot like this behind each click:


Why Are Chatbots Important?

Perhaps the most prized commodity in online commerce is attention. Attention decides how long a customer is going to stay on your page to get something done, whether that is buying a product, giving you their information or even troubleshooting an issue they might be having. For example, if you run an online ad for your business and someone clicks on it, you will only be able to convert that person if you can effectively grab their attention on the landing page. If the page is too boring, the customer’s attention will evaporate and they will inevitably drop before converting.

The most effective way to capture attention is to provide your customers with a frictionless user experience. In simple English, this means that when a customer lands on your page it shouldn’t be difficult for them to do something that they really want to. This is where chatbots excel.

Chat interfaces reduce friction in three ways:

1) Intuitiveness

One of the biggest issues with traditional webpages is that they all look different from each other. Every single website that you land on has a different color scheme, branding and layout. This means that every time someone lands on your page, they have to find their bearings before they can start navigating their way around. 

oil change landing pages

I did a search for oil change and these were the ad landing pages. All look completely different.

Even if this process takes just a few seconds, that is precious attention being wasted. With attention spans as low as they are today, even a few seconds can be the difference between a paying customer and a dropped visitor. 
Chatbots solve this problem. They rely on an interface (the chat interface) that is ubiquitous in modern life. Chat apps like iMessage, WhatsApp, Viber and even regular old texting have become the default way that billions of people in the world communicate with one another, to the point where more people use chat apps than social media today.

messaging apps graph

This means that when you use a chatbot instead of a regular website to conduct online sales, your customers are going to know exactly how to proceed with the interaction instantly. They no longer have to waste precious time familiarizing themselves with your page and can begin the buyer journey quicker, thus giving you a larger share of their attention.

2) Mobile Optimization

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that smartphones have become the primary device that most people use to access the internet. As a result, most businesses today need to optimize their web pages so that they can be used on a small screen.

The only issue is that the widely-recognized definition of a mobile-optimized page is flawed. When web developers talk about optimizing web pages for mobile they are essentially talking about squeezing your desktop web page down so that it’s usable on a small screen.

karship landing pages

This approach to web design produces pages that are technically usable on mobile but woefully unengaging from a customer’s perspective. In the image above, for example, the mobile version of the landing page gets the job done, but the image of the car is barely visible and worse still the lead generation form dominates the page real estate, making for a usable but dull experience that simply will not grab a visitor’s attention. 

With chatbots, you don’t face this problem. Unlike traditional webpages, chat interfaces were made for mobile screens first and then ported over to the larger desktop screen. Think about apps like WhatsApp, Messenger or even regular old texting. The designers who created their interfaces were not thinking about how it would look on a desktop screen, but rather how it would feel for people to use on their phones. 

image of person holding nokia phone

In fact, they were so effective at their job, that even today those same apps have (generally speaking) the same interface: message bubbles and an input bar.

whatsapp chat screenshot

The end result is that unlike mobile web pages that feel like watered down experiences, chatbots provide complete marketing experiences on mobile which in turn reduces friction in the buyer journey. 

3) User Engagement

This benefit is best understood through a metaphor so bear with me for a moment...

When you walk into a grocery store, you have to pick out all the products you want to buy on your own, enlisting the help of signs and memory to navigate your way around. Once you’re ready, you head over to the cashier and wait till an attendant can help you with the checkout process. The entire experience is doable but mundane. 

grocery store aisles

Now compare that buying experience to the one you have in an Apple store. When you walk into an Apple Store, a smiling store attendant greets you, figures out exactly what you need, answers your questions and even gives you advice based on what they might do in your situation. From the moment you enter till you checkout, there is always someone present ensuring that your experience is as pleasant as possible. The whole process feels personal, engaging and anything but a chore.

people in an apple store

The difference between your traditional webpages and chatbots is like the difference between a grocery store and an Apple Store.

On a traditional webpage, your customer has to read through the text to figure out what they want to buy (if anything), and when ready, fill out a contact form or check out all on their own. The experience is workable, but it feels mundane much like the grocery store. 


Chatbots, on the other hand, provide an engaging experience more akin to the Apple Store. Rather than doing everything on their own, your customer is guided through the entire buyer journey through a chat conversation. The chatbot keeps users engaged from the moment they land till the moment they convert into a lead or customer. 


Where Does a Chatbot Live?

Ok now that you understand the tantalizing appeal of chatbots, you might want to build one for your business. The first stage is choosing where your chatbot is going to live.

Broadly speaking, you have two choices:

App-based Chatbots

Popular messaging apps have recognized the potential for chatbots and they have been quick to implement bot platforms on their apps to grab a piece of the conversational commerce pie. Viber, Telegram, LINE, and perhaps most prominently Facebook Messenger all have well-developed bot platforms that allow you to interact with your customers. 

The primary value that these apps offer is visibility. Most, if not all, of your customers are probably using them frequently every single day, so the messaging apps pitch to you is that you should build a bot on their platform so that you can take your business to where your customers are already. They are spending hours on messenger every day, so why not have a presence there?

Web-based Chatbots

A lot of business owners don’t know this but bots can also live on a regular old web page. This happens in two ways.

1) As a conversational landing page, where the entire web page looks and feels like a chat:

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2) Or as a website widget:


What Chatbot Platform Should You Choose?

The platform that you choose for your chatbot will really depend on who your customer is but generally speaking, I’ve found that the web is where businesses can see the most value out of their bots, because of portability.

Since web-based chatbots have URLs and are just regular old HTML, CSS and javascript under the hood, they can be integrated with your existing marketing tools (like Google Analytics and Facebook Pixel) and, perhaps more significantly, they can easily be slotted into your existing online discovery channels.

For example, if you run Google Ads, all you need to do is replace your landing page link within your console with a link to your conversational landing page to begin using your bot. Similarly, adding a web-based bot as a widget to your site literally involves adding a snippet of HTML to the footer of your website.

Other than Facebook Messenger’s widget capability, you won’t see any of these benefits from an app-based chatbot.


How Can You Build a Chatbot?

Alright, so you understand the value of a bot and you’ve chosen which platform you want to build on. Now you can finally get to building. Fortunately, the buzz around chatbots has given rise to a rich ecosystem of chatbot building tools. Here are a handful of my favorites:

TARS

TARS homepage screenshot

I figured I’d get this one out of the way first. I’m a part of the TARS team myself, and we’ve worked really hard to create a no-code chatbot builder for web-based chatbots. The builder is code-free (unless you want to hook up some APIs in the flow) and every single bot is drafted as a flowchart, making it easy for you to structure your conversations. It does not support Messenger chatbots, however, and is wholly focused on lead generation and qualification chatbots. If customer support is more your speed, you might want to check out the other builders.

Hubspot

Hubspot homepage screenshot

Back in 2017, HubSpot acquired motion.ai which was one of the most promising chatbot builders available at the time. The builder has remained true to form and is still one of the best builders out there. Bots built on this platform are primarily made for the web, and the biggest advantage is that it integrates really well with Hubspot (surprise, surprise). My biggest issue with their bots is that their front end isn’t that great and often doesn’t look like a bot at all. Of course, that is a completely subjective assessment, so take a look and judge for yourself.

Manychat

Manychat homepage screenshot

Manychat is a super-popular builder if you are looking to build Messenger bots for your marketing campaigns. They have a lot of really useful content and a wealth of templates to make it easy for you to get started. Manychat treats users as subscribers, which is a good indicator of how they approach the bot-user interaction. 

I’ve found that bots created with Manychat function more like powerful content distribution pipelines for a marketing campaign than actual conversations. Think about it like MailChimp, but instead of email, you are sending out your content on Messenger. This is good if you subscribe to this approach to chatbots, but if you are looking to create more complex conversations on Messenger (eg. for customer support) look at Chatfuel 👇

Chatfuel

chatfuel homepage screenshot

Chatfuel, like Manychat, focuses solely on Messenger as a platform and has a wealth of content and templates to help you get started. The big difference between Chatfuel and Manychat, however, is Chatfuel’s vision for how bots function within the context of a business. 

Where Manychat focuses wholly on Messenger marketing, Chatfuel takes a more comprehensive approach to bots, encouraging business owners to use bots for customer support as well as marketing. The end result is that conversations built on Chatfuel tend to be more complex than the simpler, distribution pipeline approach to Messenger bots that Manychat does. Chatfuel allows for more complex conversations. This is great if complexity is what you are looking for but cumbersome if you are looking for the simpler content distribution model that Manychat adopts.

Intercom

Intercom homepage screenshot

Intercom is a wildly popular business chat platform that allows you to integrate chat interfaces into your website. Their widgets have become a common sight across the web, and there’s a good chance you’ve seen one before. Unlike a lot of the other names on this list, their emphasis isn’t on bots. 

Intercom began as a live chat sales and customer chat widget. As they’ve grown, they’ve continuously added a bevy of features to the back end of their live chat system from an email outreach system to knowledgebase management to user analytics. 

One such feature is Operator, which is a basic bot-based lead capture system that allows you to capture leads even when you aren’t online to handle live chat. The conversations (if you want to call them that) are about as basic as can be. In most cases, the bot will inform the user that live agents are unavailable and capture an email ID for future outreach at max. It is by far the least advanced bot system of the ones on this list, but if you like a combined live chat-bot approach and you want Intercom’s other features, definitely give it a try. Even though my company has created its own bot platform, we use Intercom live chat for customer support in our product.


Final Words

To a lot of business owners, chatbots seem like technology that lives on the bleeding edge, with good reason. With the rise of increasingly smart AI, businesses that adopt chatbots today are poised to benefit as those same AIs become more accessible to the masses in the coming years. 

That being said, the basic idea behind a chatbot (conducting business through a conversation) is an age-old concept that has facilitated the vast majority of commerce throughout history and can be used even today, even without any fancy AI, to produce tremendous results.

From the two merchants squabbling in the market of an ancient city to your last visit to your local RiteAid, conversational commerce has always been around us. Chatbots are just the tools that allow you to bring those traditional principles of selling onto the internet where your customers now live.

So with that, I encourage you to choose one of the creation tools I suggested above and start creating because, with the knowledge in this guide, you are ready to reap the benefits.



Image Credits

Feature Image: UnsplashDaniel Korpai
All screenshots/recordings taken by author, July 2019.
Image 1: via Automotive Dynamics
Image 2a: via Firestone Complete Auto Care
Image 2b: via Discount Tire & Service Centers
Image 2c: via RepairSmith
Image 3: via Business Insider Messaging Apps Report
Image 4: via Instapage
Image 5: via Neurogadget
Image 6: via Become A Local Leader
Image 7: Fikri Rasyid, Unsplash
Image 8: via Denver Post
Image 9: via Destination Europe & Beyond
Image 10: via TARS Destination Europe & Beyond Demo
Image 11: via TARS Ally Demo
Image 12: via Sandvik Insurance Agency
Image 13: via TARS
Image 14: via Hubspot
Image 15: via Manychat
Image 16: via Chatfuel
Image 17: via Intercom

Arnav Patel author bio