a human will be with you shortly, meatbag

How messenger bots and the relentless rise of text-based comms with companies are humanising brand interactions, rather than turning us all into machines.

“Why are you texting me? Call me instead!” – most of us, circa 1998.

“Why are you ringing me? Has someone died? Send me a WhatsApp, you weirdo.” – basically us, now.

“What are you using words for? Can’t you express this in cat GIFs instead?” - us in three years, probably.

So, look, people like finding simple, convenient ways to communicate. And putting little letters onto a thing and sending it to someone to read at their convenience has been popular for about 7,000 years. We do it to praise, to remind, to beg and to bollock.

Khal’s self-indulgent historical musings.

In fact, one of my favourite things about the continuous, unchanging human nature is that one of the oldest pieces of writing we’ve ever found is from 3800BC and reads “When you came, you said to me as follows: ‘I will give Gimil-Sin fine quality copper ingots.’ You left then but you did not do what you promised me.” Were there a Twitter in ancient Mesopotamia, a public angry missive would surely have followed.

Complaint Tablet.png

“Complaint tablet to Ea-nasir. Ahh 140 characters already? Fetch me another bucket of clay…”


But while our reasons for contacting someone might be ageless, our communication methods and trends absolutely are not.

Almost everyone now is utterly frustrated with the call centre experience. Press one to lose the will to live, then our voice recognition will wait for you to scream ‘Yodel I want to kill you with my bare, bloody hands’ thrice. Please hold while we explain our Byzantine telephone tree structure to you and relax to the mellifluous tones of this 16kb/s recording of ‘My Heart Will Go On’. On panpipes.

Companies don’t like it much, either. People can only take one call at a time, meaning it’s expensive and not cost efficient… although some call centres have an utterly horrifying soundboard system where instead of speaking to a person, a customer service exec can have four calls on the go and uses recorded voice clips to address them by selecting a response. The prospect of working there or being reassured that your complaint is being taken seriously by a quarter of a person’s time, expressed via MP3, clips is genuinely depressing. Check out this article by The Atlantic for more sad reading.

Machines Farming Humans.png

“Forget the Matrix, this is the depressing dystopia of machines farming humans”


Live chat has, instead, become a preferred option for many. I know I can’t be dealing with a long phone call, being passed between departments and re-explaining myself to helplessly clueless people between shifts. With live chat, a company can install a system at some cost, but then allow staff to work on more than one ‘call’. In fact, let’s stop calling them calls. How about sessions? That’ll do.

So, for a business, live chat is good. And for customers who are open to it, it’s less disruptive than a call. It’s silent, you can multi-task, you can get on with your day.

However, there’s no universal system. Amazon’s customer service chat is entirely different from Virgin Media’s. Some will let you make changes to your account, others claim (incorrectly) they can only offer advice and no business transactions may be completed. Some need Java, others are duct-taped together out of Flash player, an old FAQ and some cardboard.

Why now, why Facebook Messenger & bots?

Therefore, Facebook’s Messenger service has been instrumental in changing the way we interact with brands. While we may first lean towards an angry Tweet or a public Facebook comment to shame a deficient company or brand into action (and isn’t that a sea change in the whole way we interact with corporations) – but when it’s not a complaint or a public matter, we direct message.

With Facebook pages for brands offering such easy integration with your life (use the Messenger app, or the website) and giving brands such strong tools to manage and respond, it’s been a great situation for everyone.

That’s why we marketers (and particularly strategists like me) have been jumping for joy at the prospect of Facebook messenger bots. Not only because the first one I came across let you order a pizza by shouting ‘PIZZA!’ at Dominos, but because they are genuinely an improvement for the customer and the brand. It’s a rare win-win situation for everyone.


“KLM has a really smart integration – letting you check, change and confirm flight bookings via bot, including bring up your digital boarding pass.”


So, before I explain the really cool stuff, and tell you about the ones we’ve been building, let me make good on my claim that they’re humanising interactions rather than putting walls between us.

During any interaction with a brand, when you’re either looking to buy something, need to complain, or you just don’t know what to do, you’re in a slightly heightened emotional state. Anything that removes frustration from this journey is of benefit to you (and therefore the brand wanting to maintain a good relationship with you).

Frustration 1: You must sit on the phone, which may cost money, and you must pay attention lest you miss your place and are forced to start again.

Solution: You can send a message and get alerted to a response from the brand. You can reply at your leisure, 24/7 and 365.

Frustration 2: Inconsistent responses and incomplete training. Customer service staff aren’t always aware of things, or some may be better trained, meaning you can get different responses on different days or times – luck of the draw.

Solution: A chat bot is universal, instantly updated and will never tell you two different things.

Frustration 3: You have to keep explaining yourself and passing security checks when calling back about an issue or being passed between departments.

Solution: As the conversation is saved, should you get passed from the bot to a person, or between departments, all the previous messages are right there. In fact, you don’t even see what goes on behind the scenes as different people take ownership of the conversation.

Frustration 4: Needing to find a phone number to make a call, or find the right department, or find the opening hours.

Solution: All you need to know is the name of the company or brand, which you do within the Facebook or Messenger apps or websites. That’s it.

Essentially what I’m saying is that people find the experience much smoother because it’s on their terms. They pick the channel of communication; they get to keep on living their life and nobody should raise their voice. It’s genuinely better if you’re willing to use it. But what about the bot part? This is where it gets really cool.


“TechCrunch were early to the party – but their latest incarnation lets people manage news subscriptions and even book tickets to their live events – harnessing that impulsive ‘ooh, cool’ moment.”


From our data insight dealing with customer-facing brands, let’s take one anonymous one as our example: we’ve seen that 19% of their Facebook messages from customers come during weekends – when customer service staff aren’t in the office. That’s not even counting people who message late at night, over holidays or outside of reasonable hours.

Not every brand can afford or justify 24/7 customer service. This is where messenger bots come in. They’re your first line of ‘defence’ against customers. With some savvy programming and thinking, they can qualify your incoming messages and triage them. Does this person just want a phone number, your Clapham branch’s opening hours or to know what pressure their front tyres should be? That information is all freely available online, but they may not have been able (or willing) to find it. Your chat bot can deliver this in a natural way, cutting a huge proportion of your incoming work down. People wanting a simple answer don’t really care how they get it if it works.

The best part is that, at any point, if the customer is unhappy, the bot is unable to answer, or a sales/engagement opportunity is triggered, the bot can automagically let a human know to take over. They do this seamlessly; from the customer’s point of view it continues chatting but the employee introduces themselves.

But you said it humanises? Explain!

One of my co-workers came to show me an interaction they had with Sky, changing their address via messenger. The bot pre-qualified him and the person took over when needed. What made his day was the employee saying they’d finish up once they came back from their tea break. It humanised the person, the brand and the service. That simple apology for a reduced service actually turned it into a memorable experience. Hence, bots can let us add humanity back into the customer service experience by making it less robotic, ironically.

Going further down the line, a customer can be pre-qualified. Are they looking to buy a car? Great, find out what kind, see if they want a test drive. Are they eligible? What models do they like? Are they more interested in technology, or comfort? Have they watched your videos that the messenger bot offered? How much of them and how often? Would they prefer a test drive in the city, or on a country road? What time are they free? Are they happy for you to contact them?

Imagine a world where all this information is gleaned through a messenger bot that’s fully DPA and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) compliant talking to an on-call doctor who’s just finished his night shift and saw an advert for your latest SUV, all while you’re still in bed asleep. Your test drive lead just landed in an email inbox, dripping with voluntarily-offered contextual information from a happy customer – isn’t that an appealing prospect?

Well, every step of that journey I built, tested and tried in-house as an experiment. At no point in that process is a human involved. People can respond in multiple choice, type or even use speech-to-text. Unlike a long website form, people are given a dynamic user journey offering only the kinds of questions relevant to them. And the more they use it, the smarter it becomes. Equally, if they duck out after three questions, you’ve still got a partial customer profile.

In a world where convenience is the new premium, a smart user journey is an absolute asset.

So, what else have we been doing? Well, we’ve built a chat bot for ourselves. It’s live now, on the hps group Facebook page. You can subscribe to this very blog through it (in fact in a meta twist, it may well be our bot that informed you about it in a message) too.

hps Chatbot.png

“Pictured: Our nuclear option if you say no – cat gifs.”


We’ve also had a bit of fun… last year, we worked up a random PR and marketing stunt generator. It’ll give you a three-part idea to launch your brand, product or event. Sometimes it may even be useful! Most of the time, though, it’s gloriously silly. With over 24,389 different combinations, it’s actually predicted several real-life events and launches.

hps Chatbot 2.png

“Ha, that’s so silly and… wait, what was that last one? That might actually work.”


So, what’s going to be next for chat bots and AI integration? Firstly, you’ll see a lot more integrations and more of Facebook’s key features being integrated into it. I’d see embedded Canvas, local awareness bots (it would be fantastic to be able to take your location into account when suggesting local stores etc.) and lead generation baked in next.

From there? Integration with your camera or gallery. Want to know what a product is? Tell the bot you want help, let it upload an image and explain it and, hopefully, sell you one or give you some personalised advice.

Facebook also announced in late March that they’ll be bringing Messenger bots to group chats. So people may be able to co-ordinate a booking or table reservation in a group, offering contextual input.

In-messenger purchase and commerce will be along in the near future, too. Not just bolted on by enterprising people but as a full e-commerce integration.

But the main thing is going to be people going out there and seeing what they can do with messenger bots and pseudo-AI. Hell, if you need an idea, our bot might just be able to help you out there!



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Digital Strategist, tech fan and cheese afficionado

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