You’ve probably heard about chatbots, automated chat programs that rely on artificial intelligence (AI) to engage in genuine conversations with people online. There are many case studies of these chatbots successfully helping customers with common and more complex needs – think a Whole Foods chatbot that dishes out recipes or Amtrak’s “Julie” chatbot who can quickly assist with last-minute ticket changes.

Chatbots meet up at the intersection of automation trends, AI, and changing online user behavior, and that’s why they’re making a lot of sense for certain businesses. Christi Olson, head of evangelism for search at Bing, as well as one of the world’s experts on chatbots and bigwig at Bing, said recently that the chatbots of the not-too-distant future will be much more sophisticated than a set of code that spits out a narrow set of preprogrammed responses. “They talk. They think. They draw insights from knowledge graphs. They forge emotional relationships with customers.”

That sounds fancy and all, but let’s steer our way back to reality. Is it a good idea to engage a chatbot for your cosmetic plastic surgery practice? Just like any new marketing opportunity, a chatbot needs to be carefully evaluated before it’s deployed on your site or social media channels.

Why You’d Want a Chatbot

Let’s take a step back and review how people interact with your business now. They hear about you from a friend. They find you online, on your site and social media. They call or stop in. They talk with your front office, your patient coordinator, and you. They read online reviews. That’s a lot of touchpoints, and for a business firing on all cylinders, a potential customer is going to come away with a positive and consistent brand message throughout those interactions.

So what does a chatbot add to the mix? Think of combining the convenience of 24/7 access (like your website and social channels) with personalized insight and discussion (like you or your practice manager provide). No, no one’s talking about getting rid of all the people at your practice. But bridging the gap to provide more real-time, customized information in a conversational way helps you to deliver more value to potential patients.

Most of the best chatbots out right now are deployed in online customer service. In some cases, these chatbots can help a customer all the way through certain problems, or at least help to route them in the right direction if engagement with a person is needed. In the right setting, a chatbot could give your customers a low-involvement way to get answers before actually talking with anyone – this low-stakes initial engagement helps you to keep staff time focused and helps patients and potential customers who want more casual interactions.

Another tactic to consider is “chat blasting,” which works like an email or text message marketing blast, but on popular messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger. In this context, people who respond to your chat blast can get many of their questions answered or even schedule a treatment through your automated bot.

The Plusses and Minuses

  • Setup and Programming: Many tools exist already to help you build your first chatbot. You could even put together a chatbot for Facebook Messenger in an hour or less. But should you? You need to put in the time upfront to make sure you’ve built a chatbot that can offer useful assistance and be prepared to answer common user questions. This could mean brainstorming common questions and answers with your staff, having your web team research your online content that gets the most engagement, etc. Laying a good foundation is critical and it can be quite time intensive.
  • Learning and Message Refinement: After you launch your chatbot, you’ll need to keep a close eye on the information it’s sharing and the conversations it’s having. It’s certainly not a “set it and forget it” proposition. Keep track of successful interactions, but also dig deep into instances where your chatbot didn’t deliver how you would have wanted it to. These are opportunities for recoding, adding additional messaging, or restructuring the work flow to get a human involved sooner.
  • The Cost of Being Behind the Curve: It’s very easy to look at all this upfront and ongoing work, shrug your shoulders, and say “we’ll just wait until this is easier.” But of course, there’s a cost to that – your competitors could be busy learning what works and what doesn’t, and at some point you’d need to play serious catch up to keep attracting new business and engaging with current customers. Will having a chatbot in 2019 give you a long-term leg up in serving current and new patients? Time will tell.

How to Get Started

If you’re thinking about leveraging a chatbot, there’s obviously a lot to consider. Sit down with your web marketing agency and discuss what you want to achieve, and how you want to measure success. We suggest starting small – what’s one way an automated chatbot can add value for your customers or make your business run more efficiently? Then build from there and be ready to continue to collaborate as your chatbot learns the ropes.

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