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Chatbots aren’t just for consumers – the tech is rapidly taking over HR

The tech-world flavour of the year is AI, which is made up of two sub-technologies of natural language processing and machine learning. Undoubtedly you have heard of chatbots and conversational marketing because most businesses are testing or using it.
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Best cases and actionable results are thus starting to emerge in areas like sales and customer service. However, unbeknown to most, it is in HR and internal communication where the fastest adoption of chatbots has taken place.

As with the introduction of any new technology, we’re seeing businesses weighing risk vs. reward. The promise of 24 hours, seven days per week on-demand sales and service is alluring, but the potential of out-of-control and off-brand chatbots talking to future and current customers is a significant risk to swallow.

Improving internal communication efficiency

To test the technology, build a business case and experience the reward. Many companies are first solving internal communication problems through chat solutions. Common deployments include enabling employees to speak to HR, grabbing current product and supply chain information and pulling out content from company policies and documents. All of this is on-demand and in real-time.

Consider an HR department in a medium to large company. According to a Bloomberg/BNA survey, the typical ratio of HR full time equivalents (FTEs) to total FTEs is 1.1:100 (as of 2015), there is just one (and a bit) HR FTE for every 100 FTEs.

To put this into perspective, I have seen first-hand a team of four HR employees dealing with over 1,500 internal enquiries per month. The entire team spends around 90 per cent of their time reacting and getting through this volume before they can start on the more proactive side of HR, such as recruitment, talent management, employee wellbeing, reporting etc.

Organisations are adopting this new, slightly unnerving, AI-driven chat technology to ease the burden and automatically answer inbound HR enquiries. In a nutshell, companies are deploying internal customer service tools. The employees are the customers, and the information they need is typically around their benefits, payroll, annual leave, tax, the location of company data and policies. The goal? To remove between 30 to 50 per cent of internal communication hitting the desk of HR.

For HR, the benefit of chatbots is obvious, just time-saving alone rewards the cost of development. For employees, by asking a chatbot a question they get an immediate, up-to-date and accurate answer. Employees are talking to the HR chatbot in real-time instead of picking up the phone and sending an email.

But HR is all about humans talking to humans; I hear you say. Yes, absolutely. And naturally, by automating the responses to the questions that don’t need a human, means HR has more time to go and be human.

“How much annual leave do I have left?”
“Send me details on paternity allowances.”
“Who provides our medical insurance package?”

Do these types of questions really need a cup of coffee, chat in the kitchen or a long phone call? Rather than waiting X days for a response via email, would the employee benefit from an instant answer? Would advantage come when HR does not have to spend the day dealing with questions that are already answered in employee handbooks and policy documents?

Consumer risk aside, the second biggest reason companies are adopting chatbots internally is due to systems integration.

The integration barrier

Consider the average medium to large company and think about the technology stack. Sales chatbots would need integrating with a CRM, CMS, supply, marketing and reporting software. It will also need product data and, 99 per cent of the time, the ability to deal with customer service. A customer service chatbot would probably need to integrate with a CRM, CMS, product data, a ticketing system and possibly some form of reporting platform.

It would require a very avant-garde business to take this new, risky and untested technology and start integrating it into software and processes. After all, regardless of budget and willingness, if there is one thing that will stop a company adopting new tech, it is the level of difficulty (time and cost) associated with its adoption.

In most cases internal chatbots don’t require integration, certainly not for just building a formal business case. Consider our previous HR example. To get something like this up and running all a company needs to do is dig out the documentation, things like the employee handbook, benefits package information, policy documents and the like.

These documents provide the knowledge the chatbot needs to answer questions. Once the chatbot has finished learning, the company then puts a snippet of code in the header of their internal HR platform, CRM or intranet website; wherever they’d like the chatbot to appear. That is it.

Of course, future developments could integrate with platforms, processes, monitoring and reporting. But, to prove the business case, this type of low risk, testable and integration-less deployment is the reason companies are solving internal problems first.

The future is coming

There is a whole lot of hype around sales and service chatbots and gradually, some real results are starting to emerge. I have no doubt that very soon, it will be commonplace for consumers to self-sell and service through talking with company chatbots.

While companies wait for enough evidence to jump on-board, by implementing internally first, bosses are learning how to apply this AI-driven chat technology; they are seeing the positive reward and proving the business case. All without a single future, or current, customer even knowing.

Dean Withey is CEO of ubisend

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