Online chat tools have become ubiquitous among large companies looking for a convenient, low-cost way to serve customers. And more small businesses are taking note: They too can use chatbots to boost their customer experience, save time and reduce costs.


“When used properly, chatbots can be awesome for taking the strain off your employees,” says Katelyn Norton, a junior research analyst for New York City-based SoftwarePundit. “Chatbots can answer quick questions like ‘What are your business hours?’ and ‘What’s your return policy?’ so that employees can spend time responding to more complex issues. And as the technology advances, chatbots will gain further traction.”


However, a chatbot is only as useful as how well it is designed and deployed. Here are four tips for how to design a chatbot that will both help and engage your customers:


1. Lean into the technology

Chatbot software is quite easy to implement, says Norton, who has researched, tested and reviewed a number of the programs. “I am nowhere near an IT expert and I was easily able to do it,” she adds. “It took 20 to 40 minutes to build a simple one.”


Gist and Tidio are two chatbots tailored to small businesses. The vendors typically provide all kinds of self-help, including YouTube videos, blogs and live chat.


One caveat: Make sure to test the chatbot before setting it live on your website. “There’s a test section where you can pretend to be a customer so you know you’ve got it right,” Norton says. “You want to make sure you don’t accidentally send customers to the sales team instead of customer service.”


2. Disclose that “Mr. Bot” is indeed a chatbot—not a human

A research study on AI-based chatbots last year had this as its top recommendation: Let customers know upfront that they are interacting with a non-human. Why? Attempts to fool people into believing that they are communicating with a person can backfire.


That said, it’s also a good idea to make your chatbot more personable by giving it an identity and incorporating small talk and empathy, Norton says.


“People can get quite frustrated when the conversation doesn’t mimic human-to-human interaction,” she says. “Instead of opening the dialogue with ‘What can I help you with today?’ consider ‘Hi, how are you today?’ If a customer reports a problem, the response might be ‘I’m sorry to hear about that.’ So, introduce empathy while also disclosing that this is a bot.”


3. Keep the conversation real and relevant

The goal of a chatbot is not to present big ideas but to support a user. When creating scripts for a chatbot, build a dialogue based on real human discussions about relevant and specific topics, says Nathan Sebastian, content strategist and marketer for GoodFirms, a technology research company in Washington, D.C.


“Be short, be simple, be witty and maybe even be emotional,” Sebastian says. “The idea is to be as human as possible,” by creating a dialogue that sounds natural.


“I examined a chatbot recently and something was off,” Sebastian says. “I finally realized that the responses were following the questions by precisely two seconds. Technology is good, but to give users a satisfying experience, they should feel they are chatting with at least a person-like figure.”


To fix the issue, Sebastian created a dynamic timing sequence, alternating the chatbot’s replies at between one and six seconds after a customer poses a question. This is something you can do with even a basic chatbot tool. “This creates a feeling of waiting, surprise, anticipation and much more, which is similar to chatting with a real person,” he adds.


“Be short, be simple, be witty and maybe even be emotional.”


4. Make your bot proactive

One final best practice: Build your chatbot to proactively greet customers.


As an example, a chatbot can be designed to actively reach out with a message after the customer is on screen for, say, 10 seconds or idle for one minute. Bots can also be programmed to be proactive on certain pages. If a customer is on the FAQ page, the bot might send out a message saying: “Hey, I see you’re looking at question number four. Is there anything I can help you with?


“It’s a commonly cited best practice to use proactive messages to try and boost website engagement,” Norton adds. “Customers might not utilize it, but they will appreciate it.”

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