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5 Blunt Truths About AI and Chatbot Limitations


5 Blunt Truths About AI and Chatbot Limitations

As a retailer, you are undoubtedly feeling immense pressure to keep up with ever-rising customer expectations. Your online customers can shop 24/7–and they want instant information or else they may click away to a competitor’s site. Are chatbots the answer? Before you invest too heavily in a bot-centric solution, you should know the limitations of AI and chatbots in retail.

Let’s start with some revealing data. The Global Consumer Customer Service Report found that only about half of consumers would turn to a chatbot at all. And even then, they would likely only use a bot for a simple need. For more complicated issues, most shoppers prefer talking to a human. Some customers will always choose to self-serve first. But they always want to have a path to connect to a human if they can’t solve problems on their own.

Importantly, the report also found that consumers feel concerned that companies are moving too quickly to adopt bots and making it more difficult to reach a human. While older generations showed more resistance to the proliferation of bots, shoppers of all age groups shared this concern. One-third of shoppers in the 18 to 24 demographic agreed that chatbots make it harder to connect with human support when needed.

Moving too quickly to bots

Moving too quickly to bots

Chatbots have a clear and valuable place in customer service. They’re great for routine or simple tasks, like paying a bill or finding the nearest store location. But the human-to-human connection is always going to be important–especially during the pre-sales journey.

In this post, we’ll outline five limitations of AI and chatbot technology that every retailer should know. Use these insights to help prioritize when and how to deploy chatbots in a smart, cost-effective way.

But remember: Bots should be just one component of a customer-focused service approach. Customers will always want a way to connect with authentic, human support when they can’t get the answers they need from bots.  Delivering human-to-human support at scale is possible with a conversational experience platform.

#1: Chatbots Aren't Human

Here’s the blunt truth–chatbots are machines, not people. Although you can attempt to equip them with a casual tone, chatbots will never truly sound human.

When designing chatbots, developers need to make an important choice about the bot’s voice early on. They need to decide whether the bot will be straightforward and factual–or whether it will convey a personality. Some companies have aimed to make chatbots seem more human by having them go beyond informational and transactional dialog. And others may use human names or even photos to make a bot seem like a real person. 

But customers are savvy and can quickly determine if they’re talking to an AI-powered bot. And if they’ve been misled by a human name or picture, customers are apt to get frustrated quickly and take their business elsewhere. And they may associate these frustrations with the brand over the long term.

What should brands do–or not do to address this issue? Consider the two examples below.

In this first example, the site suggests that the user has engaged with someone named “Katelyn” to get a personalized legal referral. However, “Katelyn’s” repetitive responses to user questions reveal the visitor has connected to a bot–not a person. 

connected to a bot-not a person

connected to a bot-not a person

The example below reveals a different, more customer-friendly approach. Instead of implying that the chat respondent is a human, the site uses the name “Gary Grasshopper” for its bot. Since customers know they couldn’t possibly be talking to a grasshopper, they can assume they’ve engaged with a chatbot. And users know upfront that they may not be able to get all of their personal questions answered. And when the visitor asks to connect to a person, the bot responds with a link to talk to a “real person.”

talk to a real-person

talk to a "real-person"

As these examples show, companies should make it clear when a visitor is talking to a bot, even if they create a human-like persona. People will grow frustrated if they feel they’ve been conversing with a human and discover they’ve been interacting with a chatbot. And the truth is no bot–no matter how sophisticated–can ever equal our human ability to handle complex questions.

What happens when a shopper does have complex questions? First, bots need a range of error messages–scripted to align with their personas–to ensure they don’t seem repetitive. And people always need a way to connect with a human when they’ve reached the limits of what they can do through a bot.

Bots need to know their own limitations too. Instead of continuing with chat where they can’t provide solutions, bots should know when to transition the conversation to a human. The Grasshopper above shows a simple step in the right direction. Why is transitioning the conversation so important? As IBM explains:

Perhaps the most human thing we can imbue into our bots is the knowledge of their own limitations. In other words, bots should know when to ask for help from a human agent when they’ve received a


The best-practice approach is to empower bots and humans to work together–and to give customers a choice in how to engage. In retail, contemporary conversational solutions use behavioral analysis to identify shoppers who are considering a purchase and offer an option to connect. That way, shoppers can decide whether or not to engage at all. And if they do, they can choose between a bot, a customer service agent, or a human brand ambassador based on their needs. 

#2: Chatbots don't have emotions

Chatbots are great at providing facts and data. But they can never truly create an emotional bond with customers. And building an emotional bond can be a make-or-break factor in today’s competitive environment.

Why? Research published in the Harvard Business Review has proven that consumers who have an emotional connection with a brand are 25% to 100% more valuable than those who are satisfied.

As artificial intelligence (AI) technology has advanced, developers have become more able to program chatbot responses that seem to express sympathy or empathy. But should they? One Penn State study found that many people do appreciate these sentiments from chatbots, but regard them as courtesies instead of genuine expressions of emotion. Still, some people had very negative reactions to machines trying to portray empathy or sympathy.

Other research from Gartner found that over half of the respondents felt uncomfortable when bots express emotions. A human-like appearance or a face with moving lips or expressions also created discomfort. Far more respondents preferred bots that look non-human and provide typed responses.

#3: Chatbots Are Often Repetitive

One of the challenges with chatbots is that they can only deliver a set number of responses. It would be impossible to program with all of the infinite variations of human language so that they can fully engage in authentic conversation.

For users, this can lead to an uncomfortable scenario where a bot repeatedly sends error messages or input requests instead of listening to the users’ queries. In fact, some unsophisticated approaches may use the exact same language repeatedly. When this happens, people will feel that their questions or perspectives truly aren’t being heard. They may begin to associate those negative perceptions with the brand. And this will diminish trust and harm the relationship.

Unless there’s a built-in set of closed-ended questions, customers can enter anything into a chat dialog box. They can submit valid inquiries, strings of nonsense characters, or human pleasantries. Some users may deliberately test the limits of a bot’s interaction capabilities and form an opinion on the brand based on the responses.

Take a look at these two examples that were highlighted in Chatbots Magazine. In the first one, the user is entering a simple conversational phrase and encountering a repeated error message. Plus, the bot asks the user to “try again,” which isn’t helpful. Users have no way of knowing the bot’s range of capabilities, so have no way to know what they may have done wrong.

While researching this article, we encountered the same situation. On one site visited, the bot first asked us which product interested us. We entered “other” since we wanted to chat with the bot to help clarify our options. Next, the bot asked when we wanted the “other” product that we said interested us. The options were “Next Month,” “Next Week,” and “This Week.” We clicked “This Week” since we wanted to get our questions answered by the bot right away.

After this input, we got stuck in a loop of repeated responses. Instead of even attempting a conversation, the bot repeatedly asked for an email address. There was no path to engage with the bot further to determine if giving out an email was a good choice. Instead, the bot replied: “Please enter a valid Email Address.” 

It’s likely that phrase was the only possible response after being forced down a path of selecting a product option. In this scenario, the bot provided no support in assessing alternatives or helping guide decisions. The bot’s only function was to collect an email for marketing or sales follow-up. This approach can feel alienating to prospective customers instead of building a sense of trust with and connection to the brand.

#4: Chatbots Can’t Help People Make Decisions

When shopping online–especially when making an expensive purchase–people must weigh multiple factors before making a decision. This also happens when shopping in a store. But shopping online feels very different from the in-store experience.

As they shop in brick-and-mortar venues, customers can see and touch products before buying them. They can try on clothes and observe the true colors of home decor items. Plus, they can consult with knowledgeable in-store experts to determine if the product truly fits their lifestyle and personal needs.

Often, the online experience is much more anonymous. Even with detailed specifications, 360-degree product views, and reviews from past customers, people can still face uncertainty about purchases. Our study on cart abandonment entitled “Why Do Brands Abandon High-Intent Customers at the Point of Purchase. And how to Fix It?” has found that this lack of confidence is a major deterrent to online buying.

What does this mean for you? Don’t entrust bots with the complex work of helping customers make decisions. Instead, embrace advanced conversational platforms that help shoppers connect with brand experts in real-time. That way, you’ll give shoppers access to the human interaction and personalized advice they need to make confident buying decisions. You’ll see drops in cart abandonment, fewer returns, and improved customer happiness.

#5: Chatbots Don’t Help You Keep Customers

A few years ago, Accenture labeled the current environment the “Switching Economy.” The reason? Today’s customers have access to a world of digital information at their fingertips 24/7. They’re more likely to shop around and explore buying options with different brands. 

Two-thirds of people say the number of brands they consider when purchasing has increased significantly compared to a decade ago. And 70% of consumers say technology actually makes it easier for them to take their business elsewhere, according to research

As competition mounts, you need to do all you can to keep customers. And delivering individualized experiences is the way to make that happen. If you don’t recognize people as individuals, you risk losing them. According to recent findings, 66% of customers say they’re apt to defect if they feel a brand treats them like a number, not like a person.

An over-reliance on chatbots can stir up the exact feelings that drive customers away. Instead of responding with sincere emotions and empathetic responses, bots are typically formulaic and repetitive. Sure, bots help speed up simple tasks. But interacting with one can make your customers feel like you think of them as numbers, not people.

Contrast that feeling with the experiences customers have when they can connect to a brand ambassador who seeks to understand their unique needs. Customers can ask all the questions they have about a potential purchase. They can discuss issues of lifestyle, fit, and value with someone who has the expert knowledge to address every issue. 

Even if they don’t buy on-the-spot, customers will know that your brand sees them as individuals. You’ll build a bond of trust that will endure and help those shoppers see you as a helpful, supportive resource for future purchases. And you’ll stand out as a brand worthy of loyalty in an era when choices abound for customers.

A New Era of Human-Centered Customer Experience

No doubt about it: Technology has fundamentally changed the way we live and shop. For brands, technology offers unprecedented efficiency and access to customer data. It’s easy to fall prey to the mindset that technology is the answer to every business conundrum. And AI and chatbot technologies are often touted as the next-best-thing in customer experience.

But, as Forrester Research warns, companies should look beyond the contemporary “tech hype.” Instead of becoming over-reliant on bots and AI, Forrester advises companies to change “the mindset to move from a brand monologue to a two-way, authentic, and persistent dialogue across touchpoints.”

Yes, chatbots have their role in serving customers. But they will never be human or express genuine empathy. And your customers likely don’t want bots that express emotions anyway. Even the best-designed chatbots will never be able to respond to the vast range of human interactions and expressions–and will fall back on irrelevant or repetitive scripted answers. They won’t be able to support customers in making complex buying decisions or truly treat shoppers as people.

What’s a retailer to do? Know the limits of AI and chatbots and deploy bots in a smart, but realistic way. Design an approach that relies on bots and humans working together. Always make sure that shoppers can access human advice and interaction when they need it. 

Also, don’t give your bots human names to try to convince shoppers that they’re talking to people even when they aren’t. Most shoppers are tech-savvy and will see right through the illusion. When deploying bots, it’s better to create a brand-friendly character that clearly isn’t human. Those characters can give your brand some personality–and even make us laugh a bit–even if they can’t always help us.

When you do need a human touch at scale, a conversational approach is the answer. Keep bots for the basics and give your customers a way to connect with human brand ambassadors for complex issues. You can have the best of both worlds: the efficiency of bots combined with the personalization and empathy that only comes with human conversation.  

Are you ready to shift your mindset and embrace two-way conversations? A conversational experience platform is the right tool to empower the personalized, human-to-human connections your customers desire at scale. You can set yourself apart as a digital CX leader that delivers standout, human-centered experiences. 

Ready to learn more about how a conversation experience platform can help drive more conversions? Download our white paper“Why Do Brands Abandon High-Intent Customers at the Point of Purchase. And how to Fix It?”  Learn how forward-thinking brands are tackling the tough problem of cart abandonment.