Person using chatbot, robot assistant, on their smart phone in a cafe

By 2020, research firm Gartner estimates 25 per cent of customer service operations will be carried out by chatbots. (Photo by anyaberkut/Getty Images)

Innovation | Technology

One tech ahead: Is it time to add a chatbot to your business services?

These little robots are powerful sales tools that can automate a big portion of your day-to-day activities, including accounting

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You may not have realized it, but chances are you’ve already interacted with a chatbot. Think about it. Have you ever chatted with a business’s virtual assistant on their website? Had a question answered by a query posed on Facebook Messenger? With increased automation, these digital helpers are helping businesses improve customer service without human intervention, 24/7. 

And the trend is catching on quickly. In March 2018, Bank of Montreal (like National Bank and TD) launched a chatbot for Facebook Messenger and Twitter, which can answer 250 frequently asked questions (such as what products and rates are offered, branch schedules, and so on). The goal for BMO? To assign expensive resources (read employees) to more pressing problems, rather than have them process non-priority requests by phone or email. By 2020, research firm Gartner estimates 25 per cent of customer service operations will be carried out by chatbots, compared with just two per cent in 2017. 

But these automated assistants can do far more than just streamline customer service operations. They’re helping out with accounting as well. Take Pegg, developed by Sage, for example, which records transactions in Sage Business Cloud Accounting directly from Skype or Facebook. Want to know who paid an invoice and when, for how much and for what? Done! Intuit has its own bot, QuickBooks Assistant, which, with a simple question, lets entrepreneurs instantly know how much cash they have available or the amount earned last month. 

“We strive to enable accountants to better focus on their role as strategic advisers and help clients operate more efficiently, drive long-term growth and power prosperity in their organization,” says Patrick Harrison, head of Canadian Strategic Accounts and Quebec region leader for Intuit’s Accountants Business.

“Bots have a lot to offer, especially to CPAs,” adds David Paquet Pitts, marketing technologist at Okam, a Montreal web production agency that designs chatbots and other web apps. “For one thing, the algorithms are now able to extract all the key values in full sentences, thanks to natural language processing. For another, we’ve made great strides in machine learning. And since bots learn more with each new question, they’re constantly improving, for instance, in the way they categorize transactions. By saving time this way, CPAs can focus on what has the greatest impact for their clients.”

And even though bots are designed to meet general needs, they are malleable.

“With a chatbot,” explains Paquet Pitts, “you can partially adapt your questions to the individual and customize your answers. If someone leaves a page and comes back later, [they can] pick up where they left off. If they spend more time in a particular section of your website, [it can] send an automatic message asking whether they need more specific information. If they want to set up an appointment, get them to do it themselves, online. With the more complex models, you can even submit year-end reports or GST and QST information.”

Generally, a few weeks is enough time to set up a standard bot. For a customized solution, a few months may need to be budgeted for, depending on the scope of the solution. And if a company wants help in the process, it needs to plan for 40 to 100 hours of consultation. And how much will it cost?  “Same as a car! It all depends on the client,” says Paquet Pitts, adding that bots can be integrated with existing tools, so it doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch.

If you’re still skeptical about investing in a virtual helper, just think of the chatbot, Parker, which belongs to the Norton Rose Fullbright law firm in Australia. Parker interacts with clients to better understand their needs and direct them to one of three fixed-priced consulting packages the firm offers. On the first day on the job, the automated assistant took part in over 1,000 conversations and generated $15,000 in consulting sales. How’s that for efficiency? 

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