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The robots are coming for our jobs.

That’s been a persistent concern as advances in technology make the automation of many tasks easier. Customer service is not immune, even in an area one would think would be reserved for human agents: customer interactions.

The last few years have seen the popularity of live chat grow. That popularity as a customer service channel has fueled growth in developing its robotic equivalent: the chatbot. Gartner believes that by 2020 (just a year from now!), twenty-five percent of customer service and support operations will integrate chatbot technology across engagement channels. They also claim improvements in a few key technologies–natural-language processing, machine learning, and intent-matching–are making chatbots significantly more useful for customers. And companies are taking notice of early results: reductions of up to seventy percent in call, chat, and email traffic; increased customer satisfaction; and thirty-three percent saving per voice engagement reported.

Does that mean there’s no place for the human agents in the contact center chat queue? Let’s compare the relative merits of the chatbot vs. the human agent in customer interactions.

Interaction speed

Chatbots can respond quickly to customer inquiries because their questions and responses are scripted. They can quickly run through a decision tree and offer up canned text to quickly identify a problem and offer a known solution. Because common interactions are already documented, some chatbots also offer the most likely responses a customer might have to a query, saving them typing time. When compared with a human agent, who might have macros for common exchanges but would be forced to type out most responses, we have a clear winner.

Advantage: chatbot

Complex or new problems

Chatbots can be fast because they deal with the known. Whether their solutions come from human-scripted responses or machine learning, their knowledge is limited to what has been previously solved. A human, on the other hand, can learn on-the-fly. By asking questions, troubleshooting, and drawing parallels to other problems and solutions, they are the creators of new solutions that fellow human agents (as well as chatbots) can benefit from. True artificial intelligence might offer this one day, but it’s not quite there yet.

Advantage: human agent


Customers want correct answers as quickly as possible, full stop. It’s been established that chatbots do well with the scenarios they know: if they recognize the problem, they have the answer. If they don’t have the solution, the customer must explore other self-service options or contact a human agent. Human agents are more adaptable and can address both known or new issues; however, new or unfamiliar issues might require asking fellow agents or asking the customer to try a few things if a solution isn’t readily apparent. They’re also human and can make mistakes.

Slight advantage: chatbot


One of the greatest benefits chatbots bring to the contact center is their availability. They are ready for duty every day, all hours. They don’t require any breaks. They can tackle high volumes of customer interactions with ease. Human agents work set hours and require periodic breaks. Skilled agents might be able to handle multiple chats at once, but this might be at the cost of speed and accuracy.

Advantage: chatbot

Understanding nuance

The criticality of one problem over another. The word choices of customers’ responses. The overall tone of a conversation. These are a few examples of the subtle hints present in any interaction that can help indicate the customer’s overall sentiment. As the situation dictates, a human agent can adapt their tone and even go above-and-beyond what might be required in order to ensure the best possible customer experience. The chatbot, on the other hand, is relegated to following a predetermined script and will miss out on any hints in the customer’s responses that might help address problems beyond the situation at-hand.

Advantage: human agent


Tied closely to nuance is the ability to show emotion and concern for the customer. That order is needed ASAP for a gift. Those missing parts mean the furniture won’t be ready for the party. The payment was made on-time, why is a late charge being assessed? Wikipedia defines empathy as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference; in other words, to place oneself in another’s position.” While chatbots can be programmed to respond empathetically, customers may find it insulting that a program would feign this emotion. Humans, on the other hand, share many common experiences and the connection is more genuine.

Advantage: human agent

What’s the answer?

The allure of deploying an army of chatbots is understandable. Every day and hour of the year, they are available to handle issues. Right now, however, technology limits their scope to the known. And don’t ask them to recognize and defuse tense customer situations.

Considering the respective strengths of chatbots and human agents, it’s really a split decision. Each has important capabilities to offer in the diverse circumstances customers might find themselves in. The best answer is to make both available to customers. Most importantly, ensure they work well together: chatbots can address the high-volume, low complexity issues (and hand over the conversation to human agents with all the details when necessary) while agents deal with the complicated or new issues. Customers will have an option day or night that will always lead to a solution.