In the fall of 2016 – before startups started adding artificial intelligence to every pitch, and before Bitcoin triggered a speculative frenzy and inspired a host of cryptocurrency entrepreneurs – chatbots were supposed to be the next big thing.
Facebook had just announced Messenger, its chat platform that was supposed to transform how we worked and shopped. Need a flight? Share your details with a chatbot. Need to make a dinner reservation? There’d be a chatbot for that, too.
The chatbot revolution fizzled. Google’s M challenger came and quietly went. Startups moved on to other projects, such as building for voice-based offerings like Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Facebook, the harbinger of the rise of the chatbots, gave up the game by early 2018 (and later launched its own video-chat device). That January, Wired declared the death of chatbots.
But at one cloud-computing unicorn in Dublin and San Francisco, the promise of chatbots still lives. Intercom CEO Eoghan McCabe still believes in the now out-of-favor tool. And he’s bet months of the focus of his company, which until now has provided software for human customers to better communicate with and then keep track of their customers, on the notion that chatbots can still prove transformative – if they're properly hooked up to that other buzzword, AI. “This is the vision that defines our second chapter,” says McCabe. “We put seven years into building tools to let humans work together. This next chapter is of us building a whole new layer of tech.”
With Intercom’s new product unveiled on Wednesday, Answer Bot, customers can now get their hands on Intercom’s smart chatbot to find out if they agree with McCabe’s unpopular opinion. Answer Bot uses machine-learning algorithms developed by Intercom to study a company’s most common questions and answers to eventually suggest common responses on its own. In testing Answer Bot, Intercom claims that 29 percent of customers’ most common questions were resolved without a human, while customer response time improved by 44 percent.
Intercom points to financial services startup Cleo, which says that 19 percent of its inbound conversations are now resolved without human involvement. The key difference, says McCabe, is that companies using Intercom’s bot don’t need to program anything themselves, like they would with off-the-shelf AI tools from Amazon or Google. “When people think of chatbots, they think of little programmable bots that do one thing,” says McCabe. “Answer Bot isn’t programmable. It learns.”
In McCabe’s vision of an ideal workflow, employees would be able to ask for internal forms or customers check a status order or update billing information all within a chatbot. “The bot will respect you as an individual, and treat your time with respect, too,” he says.
Where other chatbots failed, Intercom believes, is that they functioned as text-based phone trees – channeling a customer to a specific route or dumping them to a phone number or email address. McCabe argues that other tools in the market – notably, fast-growing challenger Drift has its own tool called LeadBot – focus only on making it easier for salespeople to convert customers coming through a site, ignoring more complicated questions or types of customer support. “Point solutions make sense,” McCabe says of the competition. “They’re the easiest place to get purchase in the market.”
How much McCabe’s message can resonate with a market that appears largely turned off by chatbots remains to be seen. Intercom has made plenty of announcements in the past, including its own more limited, programmable bots, and then this summer, an app store. With more than paying 30,000 customers, Intercom has a large base with whom to evangelize its chatbot future. But the market is seemingly a long way off from realizing a Gartner prediction from back in 2011 that Intercom still touts as support: that by 2020, 85 percent of customers could manage their relationships with vendors without a human.
For Intercom, No. 20 on the 2018 Forbes Cloud 100 list, Answer Bot is arguably its biggest launch since taking $125 million in investment from Kleiner Perkins in March. The Irish-founded and now dual-office company doubled its research and development team over the past year to build the solution, McCabe says.
The CEO says the lack of buzz around chatbots is normal. “I don’t think there’s ever been a new technology that hasn’t followed that cycle,” says McCabe. “We insiders who get so excited about the future will always jump on the hype and excitement ahead of its practical reality. Virtual reality, self-driving cars, both of those technologies will get less sexy before they get real.”
Talking to a business through its corporate website is unlikely to ever feel sexy. But Intercom’s cofounder gets excited when he imagines the time an AI-powered chatbot could save. “So much of what happens on websites will happen in this little messenger channel,” he says.
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