Technology: Small Business Embracing Chatbot Technology

In the past, small business owners sometimes lacked the resources—both financial and human—to capitalize upon the latest productivity and customer service technologies. Fortunately, the pace of change and the proliferation of new software programs have begun to make innovative technology accessible and affordable. Chatbots—software programs that can hold a two-way conversation with people—are a prime example of accessible and affordable technology.

Why Now?

Language is a complex process and, until recently, teaching a machine how to understand different jargon, accents and all the other variables involved in speech was only partially successful. Today, programmers use different methods to teach a machine to learn a language through experience, which is why the iPhone’s Siri gets better at understanding what you want the longer you use it. As the chatbots have become smarter, consumers have become happier dealing with them. In your everyday life, it is likely that you encounter chatbots in various modes—confirming a doctor’s appointment, ordering prescription medications or conducting simple financial transactions with your bank.

The technology research group Gartner has predicted that customers will soon interact via chatbots and other AI technology for a whopping 85 percent of their dealings with various companies used for personal and business purposes.

Small Businesses Reap Benefits

As consumer acceptance has increased, many small businesses have been quick to adopt chatbot technology to provide a consistent and affordable level of quality in customer service. Even businesses that provide professional services, such as banks and financial institutions, are using technology to manage and answer simple requests, forwarding more complex inquiries to a human being. For many small businesses, putting a live chatbot tool on their website to respond to questions typed in by website visitors has proven invaluable, providing a degree of customized service that a small firm with just a few employees would find difficult to deliver. 

Chatbot’s Fastest Growth

Experts suggest we should expect to see chatbots take off in a variety of business sectors—especially those where customer service is a make or break proposition.

  • Restaurants – Some national restaurant chains are already using chatbots that customers can access through their Facebook messenger (instant messaging service) account to order food for delivery. Other quick-service chains have installed bots that act like waiters—answering questions, reading the menu, making recommendations and handling payment transactions.
  • Education or training – Facebook recently developed an experimental program—modeled on Albert Einstein—to provide answers to and conduct conversations with consumers. This could be the springboard for a variety of educational purposes, using historical or fictional characters to make education accessible and fun for more people.
  • Personal Assistants – Consumers are becoming more comfortable with using voice commands for a variety of purposes in their work and home life. Perhaps the best-known examples are services like Amazon Echo and Google Home. These home-based assistants are connected to an operating system and can obey commands that include reprogramming heat/cooling systems, playing music or looking online for movies playing nearby. There are many ways they can assist people who run home-based businesses—locating a delivery service, determining where the nearest Fed Ex pickup point is, or finding flight and hotel recommendations.

Chatbots may be a relatively new trend in many industries, but their efficacy in natural and sophisticated customer dialogue suggests that they will play an increasingly important role in the future.

Tip: Healthcare Reform Update

The Affordable Care Act (ACA)—also known as Obamacare—was not the perfect solution to the nation’s need for affordable healthcare, but it did increase the availability of quality, affordable healthcare for small businesses. Companies that had struggled for years—not only to find affordable health insurance for their workers but also to negotiate double-digit premium increases every year—were relieved to have choices and manageable premium rate increases.  Following Trump’s inauguration, Republican attempts to repeal the ACA without providing an alternative solution recreated the nightmare for many small firms. The administration’s ultimate failure to kill Obamacare ended up being a relief for many entrepreneurs and small business owners, but many issues remain unresolved.

Business owners see the need for a bipartisan effort to develop realistic and affordable solutions, which would enable the small business sector to thrive and continue to fuel our nation’s economic growth. Here are some of the concerns that leaders have identified:

  • A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office on the fiscal impact of the Federal government yanking the cost-sharing subsidies that support the ACA marketplaces (a revision that would most likely occur if Republicans continue to gut the ACA) suggests that insurance premiums for small businesses would increase an average of 20 percent next year growing to a 25 percent increase by 2020. Although the Federal government is required by current laws to pay these subsidies, President Trump has indicated he wants to stop these subsidies by any means possible as part of his mission to dismantle the ACA. The CBO has calculated that the potential economic impact on the federal deficit could be as much as $194 billion, because a move like this would require consumers to obtain additional tax credits to offset their premium payments.
  • The elimination of cost-sharing subsidies would likely lead many insurance companies to exit the individual insurance market, and could disrupt the health insurance marketplace, leaving small business owners with limited access to affordable health insurance options.
  • Small business advocates oppose the introduction of any measures that would result in separate risk pools for the healthy and the sick, and want to see measures to encourage businesses to establish association health plans.
  • Sector leaders want to see steps taken to expand Medicaid. ACA already had provided coverage to an additional 14 million previously uninsured Americans—a total that includes an estimated 2 million small business employees.
  • Entrepreneurs want to see healthcare tax equity measures in place for the self-employed to allow them to deduct healthcare expenses from FICA tax obligations.

The small business segment is hailed as the champion of job-creation in the United States. If it is to continue in this vital role, lawmakers must expand efforts to do more to reform healthcare insurance.