Betaworks VC Peter Rojas shares his perspective on the role of chat interfaces in customer service, including their success outside of U.S. markets

Amid rapid developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning, CX designers and strategists have been looking at chat as a way for brands to interact with their customers in a human way on a massive scale. In the right scenarios, AI-powered chat interfaces reduce friction in communicating with consumers.

A recent PSFK survey found that 74% of consumers prefer chatbots when they are looking for instant answers. As Leticia Kyoto, head of AI and emerging technology at Accentia, commented, “Customers want an answer, they want their problem solved, and if a robot is helping that to happen faster and smarter they actually do enjoy that experience.”

Peter Rojas, a VC at Betaworks in San Francisco, has years of experience studying the tech sector. He spoke to PSFK founder and editor-in-chief Piers Fawkes for our podcast and offered an insider’s point of view on the best uses of chat as an interface in this extract from their conversation.

Piers: Is chat still an important medium?

Peter: I think to call it dead is the entirely wrong framing. If you look at what chatbots are oriented around, it’s this notion that messaging continues to be and perform a central function in our lives. If you look at, globally, the usage of iMessage, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Line, Kakao, Kik and Telegram, the usage there is enormous.

If you look outside the U.S., especially if you look in China, WeChat has done a really good job of making it easy for people to design experiences that are delivered within and through WeChat.

Because we don’t have as unified a messaging ecosystem in the U.S. as in China because WeChat is so dominant there, it’s been a little more fragmented. The stuff that I have seen in terms of bots that have been successful have largely performed really well outside of the U.S. for whatever reason.

Facebook Messenger had a big launch and then hamstrung their own platform in a variety of ways. I think they rushed it out. Then they have not done a very good job of supporting developers who want to build on top of that platform. They may say otherwise but I have seen, firsthand, that they have not done a great job there.

I’ve seen people building experiences and bots that do have substantial numbers of users. I think the question is really around, again, context and ease of use. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you reducing the friction to interaction? Long-term, there’s a convenience factor and ease of use around chat and interface that continues to be really attractive to people.

The success of Slack, for example, in a business context, bears that out. I wrote about this two years ago. The idea that a chatbot is going to replace an app, which is already really easy to use, was just idiotic. That was never going to happen. The point at which chat makes sense is when it is easier and reduces the friction to what you want.

Trying to replace apps rather than complement, or design experiences that don’t translate very well as apps—I think that’s where the opportunity has been and will continue to be.

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