The coronavirus crisis has been compared to the Great Depression of 1929 by many commentators. Given the enormity of the pandemic, this would be a fitting analogy. There is, however, one major factor working in humanity’s favour this time around: technology. With entire countries going into lockdown, interactive video conferencing tools recorded double digit growth in a matter of weeks. However, chatbots too have been riding a wave of interest with governments and businesses using them at scale to disseminate vital information to citizens and employees.

COVID outreach by health and welfare agencies

It was the World Health Organization that led the charge for chatbots. It teamed up with Rakuten Viber to create a dedicated chatbot that could interact with people in dozens of countries in several different languages. Soon, many local municipalities launched their own to prevent their phone helplines from being swamped by queries from citizens. Lockdown restrictions in most parts of the world meant that call centres were making do with skeletal staff, barring the most critical services. Chatbots have helped filled the gap enabling health authorities in countries like Brazil and India to direct patients to healthcare facilities and track hospital occupancy rates.

Chatbots in healthcare are not a new phenomenon. The cost advantages they have to offer make them an undeniable value proposition for hospitals, clinics and government agencies. Chatbots can be tailored for single purpose applications or tackle a range of tasks that would have otherwise required a trained human representative. Government agencies have also been using chatbots to counter fake news on social media and the web.

Businesses leverage chatbots to drive sales and customer engagement

No business continuity plan could have possibly factored in a crisis of such proportions as COVID 19. However, businesses were quick to recover from the initial shock and pivot to remote working apps in order to keep engaging customers. The use of file sharing apps and cloud-based Customer Relationship Management (CRM) apps soared in the weeks following lockdown. Customer facing teams were easily among the worst hit with call volumes increasing exponentially. It is here that chatbots have really proved their worth as stand-in a virtual customer support channel.

E-commerce and retail businesses have deployed chatbots to funnel incoming calls to self-service portals, adding a layer of redundancy to their customer support operations. Bot providers like Amazon, Chatfuel and Dialogflow are seizing the opportunity created by the current pandemic to create better experiences for businesses and their end-customers.  The case for investing in chatbots is clear: a steady pipeline of leads, customer segmentation and analytics and personalized user experience.

Chatbots are also significantly cheaper to build and maintain than mobile apps while offering comparable benefits. The popularity of messaging apps is another application that chatbots have finally come of age.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has been a time of great upheaval for the world. However, it has also forced government and businesses alike to rethink the systems and processes that were long taken for granted. Interactive tools like chatbots – and the technologies that power them – represent a step change in service delivery, the full impact of which will be clear in the time to come.

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