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  • January 27, 2021
  • By Ian Jacobs, principal analyst, Forrester Research

What Do Customers Really Want From Chatbots?

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“Got so much personality/ Impression of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend” —New York Dolls (“Personality Crisis”)

ABOUT A DOZEN YEARS AGO, I found myself incessantly trying to explain just what an industry analyst does, both in concept and on a day-to-day basis. My relatives, and quite a few friends, were all pretty baffled—except for a cousin who was a sales executive at Oracle at the time (thanks for making me feel seen, Ron!). Some of them saw me as a run-of-the-mill consultant, jetting around and (over)charging companies for tepid advice. The consensus, however, was that I was a quasi-futurist, peering ahead to predict times to come for technology.

I had so many conversations with non-tech-industry folks about the state of the future, in fact, that I eventually formulated a pithy—and characteristically snarky—motto-like answer. When folks asked me what the future was going to be like, I would inevitably reply, “The future will just be more annoying.” Seemed like a safe bet to me! That sentence quickly became my catchphrase. Colleagues and friends would either prompt me to repeat it or just give me a knowing wink as they copped the line.

Well, I could try to apply that line to our plague year, but annoyance is the least grave reaction I could have to the horrorshow that was our past 12 months. So I will refrain. And yet, that catchphrase has popped into my head more than a few times recently as I have discussed customer service with companies of all stripes. Despite the lessons of 2020, customer service will likely get more annoying in the coming year.

In some ways, we as consumers will share some of the blame. Here’s an example of what I mean: Forrester Research recently surveyed consumers about their attitudes, desires, and dislikes when it comes to dealing with financial services companies. In one question we asked consumers how strongly they agreed or disagreed with some statements about using virtual agents for their financial services accounts. One of those statements was “I want a virtual agent to have a personality.” Only about one-third of consumers in the United States and fewer than a quarter in Italy wanted a “Just the facts, Ma’am” type of chatbot. The rest want some pizzazz and personality.

You really want your mortgage or mutual fund provider to create chatbots with personality? Really? No offense to those in the trade, but bankers are not typically described with phrases like “Oh, he’s such a character.” Even worse, the design of the personality for many of these chatbots will often be left up to engineers and programmers. Chatbots cracking dad jokes when we ask them to pay off our credit card bill? Ugh. No thanks. Even if companies were likely to invest in hiring designers to craft the chatbots—and their personalities—I’d still argue that that wouldn’t give consumers what they really want.

For some insight into what consumers might actually be seeking out, let’s look at a different statement about financial services firms we asked consumers to rate. We asked them how they felt about the statement “All virtual agents are the same.” Thirty percent of U.K. consumers and 38 percent of French consumers agreed with that statement. Even fewer U.S. consumers—27 percent—agreed with it. To read into the data, consumers might see personality as a way for companies to have their chatbot stand out from the hundreds of other ones out there. Well, maybe.

But I’d argue that providing real utility and convenience, and getting out of the way of human support when needed, would be better forms of differentiation. And that differentiation is still possible, because only 14 percent of U.S. consumers believe that virtual agents are more likely to provide accurate information than a human!

So unless we start focusing on what really matters, be prepared to live in my long-predicted more annoying future.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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