The Emergence of Chatbots in the Enterprise

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Esther Shein

Since Facebook made its Messenger mobile texting app available for free last spring, businesses have begun experimenting with using chatbots, software that automates functions like communications and customer service.

In April, the company launched its Bots for Messenger Platform to give developers the ability to build bots for different types of content. Skype got into the game too, rolling out its Skype Bot Platform in March, and now claims over 30,000 developers have started building bots. Microsoft has also incorporated the Skype Bot Platform and the Microsoft Bot Framework into one environment so instead of having to copy and paste configuration data, developers can automatically configure bots on the platform to work on Skype.

Momentum for chatbots is growing as companies seek to develop services on top of the data that’s available to them, industry observers say. Companies from KLM Airlines to Taco Bell, Sephora, Whole Foods and Expedia, among others, have all rolled out chatbots to let users order food, book flights, inquire about services and browse online stores. Facebook claims that tens of thousands of developers are building them.

“Messaging will blow past social networks as the dominant media activity,” in 2016, and has already been the fastest-growing online behavior for the past five years, according to tech consultancy Activate. 

“I think chatbots are coming about now for the enterprise … because of the ability to not only pull together all the datasets that exist in big data, but making it actionable through the prevalence of social media and messaging; that is why the timing is right now,’’ says Jeff Orr, Research Director for the Future Enterprise, at ABI Research.

From a business driver perspective, Orr believes “chatbots offer brands an opportunity to reach an audience that is currently active in messaging platforms and engage in dialogs that might translate into immediate actions. He says he’s also curious to see how chatbots are going to transform well-established customer acquisition models like web or mobile advertising. 

Any functions that rely heavily on conversations, such as customer service or rapid information access are good fits for chatbots across different industries, observers say. 

What IT Needs to Consider

As chatbots become more pervasive in the enterprise, IT will need to provide back-end capabilities such as API integration, security and monitoring used in bot technologies.

Just as they protect other enterprise data, IT will need to ensure that the chatbots they roll out are secure and won’t compromise corporate data, observers say. 

Orr says that companies need to focus on “making sure they maintain control over corporate sensitive information, so they [need to be] thinking about security and authentication … across multiple platforms.”

Tech fragmentation is also something IT needs to consider. “If you substitute voice with a messaging platform, one of challenges enterprises face today is fragmentation” with the tools and systems companies offer for communication,’’ says Orr. There are already dozens of messaging platform startups, and in order to deal with that fragmentation, the market needs to produce some popular bot platforms that will increase enterprise adoption, while also enabling cross-platform integration.

While it remains to be seen how much headway chatbots will make in the enterprise and how soon, it’s clear more and more businesses will be testing them out. “The ability to query systems and get intelligent responses back that help move that business forward or complete the tasks employees are being asked to do is a goldmine in that sense,’’ says Orr. As a result, “developers should think about how they can reapply their skills. To me, those are the most inspired types of solutions that can come about.” 

Chatbots most likely won’t be the be-all solution for the future of enterprise communications, but a component of an organization’s ability to be more efficient, and in some cases, increase employee productivity. 

“There are many facets organizations have to think through as they make these decisions’’ about deploying chatbots, says Orr. As they continue to adapt to the presence of mobile devices and implement BYOD policies, companies need to figure out how both the messaging apps and the content coming in will be used, and what parts IT will need to administer and curate, and which they should lock down, secure and manage or create barriers for.