APU Business Careers Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

Chatbots Can Be a Great Asset to Companies. Until They’re Not.

Podcast featuring Dr. Aikyna FinchFaculty Training Developer, Center for Teaching & Learning and
Dr. Wanda Curlee, Program Director, School of Business

Chatbots can help companies answer common customer questions any hour of the day. Using chatbots can help build customer relationships while gathering data and insight about customer needs. But chatbots can also be a source of frustration for customers. In this episode, Dr. Wanda Curlee talks to Dr. Aikyna Finch about her experience using and building chatbot programs. Learn why more companies should be adopting chatbots while being mindful of the limitations of this technology.

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Dr. Wanda Curlee: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Wanda Curlee. Today we are going to be chatting about artificial intelligence and chatbots. My guest is Dr. Aikyna Finch. Aikyna, welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Thank you, so much, Wanda. I am so excited to be with you today. This is going to be a great time.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I think so. Aikyna, you’re well-versed in chatbots, but before we go into that, can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you started with chatbots?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Great question, Wanda. I started with social media around 2008. My first social media platform was LinkedIn. Then, from there, Facebook and Twitter. I call them the big three, and then we went on from there.

The chatbots were amazing to me because of the automation piece, and how you could be speaking to somebody at 2:00 in the morning while you’re asleep, still building that connection. That’s where I would teach people. I’m like, “Look, this is a way for you to build that community. This is a way for you to start building that relationship. By the time they come to you, they already know you. They already know how you’re feeling. They already know what you’re thinking about. The relationship part is easier, and things are more fluid.” That’s why I was really into chatbots because I see it from the community side. I see it from the relationship-building side, and then I see it from the growth side.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Oh, interesting. What is your definition of a chatbot? I know many of us, including me, disregard them as those pesky things you have to deal with before you get to a human.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: It is that space that answers all the questions before you get to the true conversation. The reason why I say that is because, “Okay, let’s get the preliminaries out of the way. What is it that you need? What is it that you want? How can I serve you?” All those things.

When you’re coming in to do that 15-, 30-minute conversation, you already know. You’ve been able to do your research. You’ve been able to put everything together so you could give them a strong presentation. Whether it’s your students, or whether it is a client, you’ll be able to have that strong conversation, you don’t have to necessarily waste time on the preliminaries. That’s what the chatbot does for you.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Okay. We’re talking about artificial intelligence, too. How does artificial intelligence and the chatbots correlate? Are you telling us that chatbots learn?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: That is very interesting because I’ve been on the front- and on the backend, and sometimes it will actually suggest things that I may have missed while I’m building the program out. Or, it’ll say, “We’ve put this out a couple of times. We noticed that these people say this, so maybe asking this question will help you get to where you’re trying to get.” They do learn because they take the data in, and then they’re like, “This is a time saving opportunity for you.”

Dr. Wanda Curlee: As they learn, they help you. They can also help the customers, I guess, as well.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Of course.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Okay. Do your chatbots talk, or is it they’re typing back and forth, or do you have a mixture of chatbots?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Well, my favorite, is mini chat. I have it programmed to where it will say things according to the responses. It responds how I would respond because I’m writing it the way that I feel. That way they build a feel around how they would talk to me, because I answer it the same way I would answer it as a person talking to them.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. That’s really interesting. Why are chatbots so useful for companies, and how do you use them?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: They are amazing. First off, we can’t touch all the people, as a human being. We can’t. Sometimes our businesses are not open 24/7, but the chatbot is up there whenever they need to speak to us. They can also go ahead and answer those questions. It could be 2:30 in the morning and they could really be frustrated, knowing that they’re probably not going to speak to a person. They’re probably thinking, “Oh, I’m going to have to wait on an email.” But when the chatbot comes in there, and answers their question, right there, gives them different solutions to try, gives them different options of where they can find it on the website, they have the answer to their question and they can have a restful sleep.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Hmm. Okay.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: That’s an email that has been avoided.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: We know we get a lot of emails, no matter where you work.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Yes, definitely. Definitely. Also it’s a relationship0builder, especially if the chatbot does talk. “If you look over here, and explore this, did you know that because you’re looking for this, you could actually look for these other things that might be helpful to you as well?” They inform your audience about what’s going on on your site, what you’re doing, what things they may have not uncovered by theirselves. That’s another way to work with your clients, or even let’s say, in education.

Let’s say your students know you’re not up at that 2:00 in the morning hour, and you have a chatbot on your website. They send the email. The email goes to the chatbot. They say, “I’m having a problem here.” “Well, did you check here? Did you check here? Did you check here?” Then, let’s say number three was the thing they didn’t check. They go through the steps.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I can see where that’s very useful for IT. Right now, where I work, IT sends you an email on how to resolve a situation. Sometimes I don’t even understand the email because they put it in IT jargon. Having a chatbot that puts it in layman’s terms would be a good way to start, in my opinion. Do you think that’s a good way of using it?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Yes. Yes. I’m going to tell you an example as me as a customer. I was on my phone service, and of course, now, because they’re having so many calls, they start with the chatbot. “Did you do this? Did you test this out? Can we direct you here? These are certain things that you can do in the meantime to help you make that decision. Have you made the decision yet? Okay. Then we’ll send you over to this place so that you can really speak to a person.”

I appreciated having that research, and being able to have a fully informed decision instead of sitting there with the person, “Oh, what about if I do is, and what if I do that?” That saved a lot of time when I was actually with the person.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I could see that. There needs to be a balance, in my opinion, and maybe you have a different opinion, between chatbots and the personal touch with a human being. I know, sometimes we want to talk to a live person.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Agree.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Take the chatbot away. Let me talk to a live person. You might be angry. You might have tried everything. What is that balance, and how, if you get that chatbot, how do we as human beings get through the chatbot to get to a live person?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: I test that out because I’m usually that person that wants to talk to a person. Even in the ones that I build, I make it a simple tree. “Do you want to do this? Do you want to do that? Do you want to do this?” Then I put a section in there where, “Speak to a person.” That way they can get to a person easier.

A lot of times they’re built to get those questions answered. Sometimes you’re not in the head space to answer those questions. People who are working on the chatbot do need to have a representative button, say, “Okay, I need to speak to someone right now about this thing.”

Having that representative button and having that clause to get out of the chatbot is definitely a fail-safe that every chatbot person needs to have, because that only frustrates the person, and it can also make you lose business, and it can also take away that personal touch. Sometimes, yes, they’re useful, but sometimes they’re not appropriate for the time.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Right. I have a 87-year-old mother who can’t stand these things. She will go to the store so she can have a live person. I wonder how that’s going to evolve over time because she gets nervous because she thinks, “Oh, I’m dealing with technology. I don’t know what to do.” She doesn’t even try. I wonder how many people we’re leaving behind because chatbots are the first door into seeing a live person.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: That’s a very good question. I’ve thought about that because I’m a natural techie. I love the things, but I have a mother who’s later in years, as well and her natural instinct is to go straight to the person. When I’m training her on technology, basically, once again, she does really try. She brings me the phone, and hands it to me, and says, “This is what I want to do.”

There are people that we are leaving behind because of the technology. Yes, it saves time in many instances, but we also have to have a fail-safe. Everybody is not technically savvy, and we have to respect that. There has to be at least a space in that technology where you say, “I need to speak to a representative. I’m not technically savvy. I need a person to walk me through.” That’s fail-safe in there regardless. Even if you need to put your name and your telephone number, and say, “Please have someone call me back.”

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Right. Yeah. That would be so good, but I don’t see many companies doing that, unfortunately. I worry about the older generation because we’re all going to be there at some point, and technology’s going to go beyond us, even those of us that are technology savvy. What are chatbots useful today in companies? Where do you see companies using them? Are companies truly taking advantage of chatbots, as they should be?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Some of the larger companies are using them, definitely, in the customer service area, and definitely in the technology area. They tend to want to use those so that they could spend a little less time with the preliminaries, as I say. Especially, me being a techie, I tend to, “What’s the issue? Okay, let’s break it down.” Sometimes people don’t know how to articulate the issue. Sometimes that takes a little bit more time. And to bring the call volume down, they want to use the chatbots for them to go and filter through, then the person comes on there and saves the day, as they say.

I think that they are not using them to their fullest ability because they’re not using them to build the relationship. They’re not using them, and building them, to make the person feel comfortable. They’re building them to make the call shorter.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: For the bottom line, maybe?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Right. There is a way that you could still make them feel comfortable, and still affect the bottom line. Everybody knows the analogy about the vinegar and the honey. You get more [bees] with honey than you do with vinegar. Having that chatbot that gives them reassurance, and gives them a quality of customer service, and relationship is going to go a lot further. By the time the person actually gets on the phone, they’re going to be glad to speak to them, saying that they had a good experience. They had the information that they needed, and then the person can go into the thing.

Right now, it’s basically, “What is this? What is this?” “I don’t know. What is this?” They’re so frustrated because they keep asking that same question over and over again, without having the thought that this person may be answering it in a different way, or this person may not be interpreting the question the way that it needs to be interpreted. Building that into the chatbot is going to save companies a lot more time and energy.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Interesting. My mom, nine times out of 10, doesn’t even know what they’re asking. I feel for her, and I’m sure you feel for your mom, as well.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Yes.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Let’s go to a very focused industry. Do you see chatbots making it into the classroom at the elementary, high school, or university level? For example, I teach at the university level, and I can see chatbots being a great asset in the classroom to answer mundane questions. You’ve kind of touched on that, but how can it help the teacher that’s standing in front of the class, as well?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Oh, that’s a very good question. A lot of times we want to do interactive things. Our students tend to be more on the technical savvy side, especially on their telephones, so having some of those questions where you could keep them engaged, where they can have what they’re used to having, their phone in their hand, and asking those questions in the middle of the chatbot. We use a lot of those technologies like Poll Anywhere, Mentimeter, and things of that nature, in the classroom already. That’s another form of a chatbot where you can build it out, and let them interact in their way. It’s meeting the students where they are. Yes, absolutely. That way you keep their attention. You keep them focused. They’re answering in a methodology that they’re used to, and it will relate to them.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I have a five-year-old granddaughter, and for Christmas she got an iPad. I’m amazed at how she can go through it. The things that she likes most, are speaking with the chatbots, obviously, at her level. Her parents put all the parental controls, and everything. It’s amazing to watch them interact. I wonder, “Where will chatbots go by the time she’s 10, 15, 20 years old.” It’s fascinating to me.

As I said, at the university level, I could have a student that is really trying to get something done, and they can’t because I’m asleep, or I’m unavailable. They could have asked a mundane thing like, “How do I get an extension in the classroom?” They may not know where the button is. Right now, we have to send them to go to classroom support, and it may take them a day before they find out. I think that would be great at all levels, even a high school level, I see high schoolers using things like that. I think it’s our imagination as to where chatbots will go. Do you see any other focused industries that do not use chatbots, or use them sparingly, that really should adopt them fully?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Prime example, any of the service industries coaching, counseling. That would be amazing because you never know when a person is in a crisis. If you have a chatbot that will say, “I need that word of encouragement. Affirmation. Follow the steps for cooling down.” These different things like that. Having that chatbot there to be that sounding board because sometimes they need somebody to hear them. That would be a perfect one to have a voice piece to it. “Okay. Tell me about what you’re feeling. Here’s some of these things. Let’s breathe together.” That could be an option to use a chatbot.

Of course, any type of language learning. We know about Rosetta Stone, and things like that. That’s why a lot of the kids love that because they’re hearing how they’re supposed to say these things. As they use the chatbot, their articulation will change because they’re hearing the way they’re supposed to say it. They’re repeating. A lot of times, those things are amazing, as well.

A couple of other industries would definitely be opinion polls. A lot of people want testimonials, right now. Having that chatbot to put that application in there would be a game changer. Right after that service, they could actually speak it out because a lot of people have a problem with typing. If they have the chatbot, “Please record.” Do the chatbot. The chatbot will say what you said, “They say yes.” Then that will send it off to a system that goes into that testimonial piece. Those are some of the things that I would think would be beneficial for chatbots, right now.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. I could see it in the healthcare industry, as well. Can you imagine in a long-term care facility where somebody has dementia, and they’re asking the same question over, and over, and over. Chatbot doesn’t care. Even in a hospital setting. If I need something, I could work with the chatbot, and they could figure out what I truly need, if I don’t really know what I need. I can see it in many areas. Every hospital room has a television, and you can work with the chatbot over the television. Yeah. That’s amazing.

I, actually, am a project manager. One of the things that I have noticed in project management that I think a chatbot would be great at, is to help me look at things that I wouldn’t normally look at. For example, I’m doing the schedule, and I may have missed something. The chatbot could come out, and based on the AI behind it say, “Hey, Wanda, you normally look at this, and you haven’t done that. You might want to go look at this area.” Or, if I’m trying to put a meeting together, today. In academia, when you’re trying to put a meeting together, it is almost impossible. If you had a chatbot that could go out, and look at everybody’s calendar, they could put it together for you. That frees up all that time. Do you ever see chatbots doing that? Making appointments, helping you put together, maybe, a presentation for leadership, or things of that sort?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Yes. I have a couple of software that have that built-in. Definitely in the calendar industry. A lot of them are starting to add that piece in. Also, a lot of the project services are starting to add that in. That is a great piece, especially ones that’s built for data. They’re looking for, “They did this at this time, or they did this on this day.” When they don’t pick up that you did those things… It’s like a checklist. When they pick it up, then they’ll say, like you said, “Wanda, you didn’t do this, yet.” Doing things in the software that you notice that you do all the time, that helps with the data process. That helps to build that AI, in the chatbot feature.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Okay. I wish that the software industries and project management would do that. So far, there’s very few that have incorporated chatbots, and AI for that matter. If they don’t get on the stick soon, they’re going to be left behind, unfortunately.

Where do you see chatbots going in the future? Will they start to look like humans, so that a person thinks they’re actually speaking to a human. Not an android, but if you think of “Star Wars,” you had that projection, and maybe we’ll have that with our chatbots in the future.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Well, they started with the android type of things, and the avatars, so far. Yes, I would love to see the projection. Virtual reality. You have a lot of those, right now, that people are starting to put into the app features to make that chatbot look more interactive. I’m sure that we’re getting ready to get the person, any day now.

There are a few apps that do have that actual person that’s programmed to say, what have you. We see that a lot in our safety trainings. The person does different videos, and then, judging on which answer you click, that’s the answer that you going to get, with the person saying it. Some of the trainings have started doing that. Now if we could get the chatbots to doing that, then we’ll be golden because people will feel more comfortable to deal with a chatbot instead of chatting with them.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Also, I can see it for disabled clients using chatbots because I would assume chatbots can type, as we know that, we go back and forth. That would help anybody that maybe can’t hear. Then we have the voice for those that maybe can’t see. That would be amazing to me that chatbots could, again, help in the classroom for those students that may have a disability, or with autism, I can see chatbots. I’m not a doctor, or nurse by any chance, but I think that would be amazing to see how that works for students with different types of disabilities.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Yes. Yes. I have heard about the research in autism with that, with different softwares, and things. Yes, I definitely agree.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: That would be amazing to me. Aikyna, thank you, very much for joining me today on this exciting topic. I see chatbots going to a place that we can’t even imagine at this time. Do you have any last words you would like to leave for our listeners?

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Yes. As you are building your business, or as you are building relationships, consider the chatbot. If you know that you have these questions all the time, go ahead and set it up the way that you would answer it. Let them get used to your cadences, and how you would answer, how you would speak, and get those questions answered.

Have a resource ready for them when they ask, at whatever time it is. Then that way, when they come to you, you already know what they’re needing. That helps with your data as well, but always have that clause in there where, “I need to speak to a person.” Let them be able to make that full connection with you. The chatbot will help many, but it also frustrates many. Have a situation where you can accommodate as many as possible.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Thank you, for those wise words, and thank you, to our listeners for joining us. We have some exciting podcasts coming in the area of artificial intelligence. Stay tuned, and stay well.

Dr. Aikyna Finch is Faculty Training Developer in the Center for Teaching & Learning at American Public University. She received a Doctorate of Management, an MBA in Technology Management and an Executive MBA from Colorado Technical University. She has an M.S. in Management in Marketing, an M.S. in Information Systems in IT Project Management from Strayer University, and a B.S. in Aeronautical Technology in Industrial Electronics from the School of Engineering at Tennessee State University. She is a podcaster, social media coach and speaker. She is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council and a contributor to Huffington Post, Goalcast, Forbes and Thrive Global. She can be found at DrADFinch on all social media platforms.

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