The Downside of Automated Responses

When Amsterdam police responded recently to a call regarding threatening tweets, they were surprised to learn that the threats were actually made by a Twitter bot. The automated system had taken words at random from the user's Twitter feed and scrambled them to create the unintentional, yet threatening new tweet. The more surprising fact about this case was that the tweet was actually created in response to another Twitter bot. While this is an extreme case, this is just one example of how users and businesses can be put at risk as a result of issues with automated technology.

Unnecessary police action aside, Twitter bots can have damaging effects when used by brands as part of automated social campaigns. Social automation isn't new; in fact, a large portion of social networking accounts are actually bots. Many brands have, however, recently started to jump on the automated response bandwagon for Twitter in an effort to increase social engagement and build awareness. These automated response campaigns can be very successful at engaging with consumers, but each week it seems that another brand is apologizing for a campaign gone wrong.

When Robots Go Rogue

While brands develop automated response campaigns on Twitter with the best intentions, automated technology can actually negatively affect a brand's relationships with consumers when it responds to them inappropriately. Some of America's most recognized brands have seen their automated response campaigns backfire. When this happens, it is usually because a Twitter bot is set to a rule that does not take into account the intention or the sentiment of the initial input, and instead blindly substitutes words. For example, when the New England Patriots reached one million followers on Twitter, they replied to fans who retweeted their celebratory tweet with an automated message featuring the fan's Twitter handle on a jersey. However, fans were disappointed when the team accidentally tweeted a jersey with a racial slur.

Use Automated Tech for Good

Not all automated technology puts brands at risk. There is a particularly strong opportunity for brands that use automated technology to build relationships through customer service interactions. Automated technology allows brands to provide customers with efficient, instant, accurate answers to basic questions without the hassle of having to speak directly with a representative. Successful implementation of automated technology depends heavily on having a sound customer experience strategy in place that also encompasses the collecting and analyzing of data from each interaction with a customer, across all digital channels. For example, it makes little sense to apply automation technology to your social channels while ignoring other channels when 58 percent of customers turn to a company's Web site first for answers and only 9 percent turn to social media and mobile combined.

Another important tip is to use automated technology that can identify the intent of the initial input and can adjust its response accordingly. For example, since there are hundreds (even thousands) of ways a question can be phrased, virtual agent technology has the ability to recognize what a customer is actually asking, regardless of how a query is worded. Each time a customer asks the virtual agent a question, it is evaluated against a set of criteria that consist of regular words, word combinations, and phrases, as well as rules for combining these terms to help match the question with the most accurate response. A customer who asks "how to change a flight" and a customer who types in "how to cancel a reservation" will receive the same response because their intent is the same.

The other advantage to using automated technology in this manner is that it is able to learn from interactions and improve its accuracy over time—and even identify common follow-up questions. This not only means more accurate answers, but also that the agent can anticipate the customer's next question and proactively provide relevant, helpful offers. Ultimately, this helps build strong relationships by giving customers a more effortless experience and showing that the brand understands their needs.

Adoption of social media as a customer service channel is growing; nearly 60 percent of companies have adopted the channel to date, and that number is expected to jump to 80 percent by the end of the year, according to the Aberdeen Group. While social media is a growing customer interaction channel, it's important to keep in mind that many customers rely on social media to complain—not because they enjoy it, but because it's become their last resort after other failed attempts to resolve their issue with the company. Obviously, this is the last place where you want automated technology to fail.

Automate Responsibly

Automated technology provides an enormous opportunity for brands. However, in order for it to reach its full potential and avoid potentially damaging relationships, brands must use it strategically. Consumers' comfort level and appetite for interacting with machines is increasing, but to protect reputations, brands need to use automated technology not just to reach out to customers, but to properly engage with them over the channels they prefer, and to provide true value with each interaction.

Mike Hennessy is the vice president of marketing at Intelliresponse.

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