Many industry analysts consider 2016 the year of the conversational digital assistant. This language technology goes by several names – intelligent virtual assistant, conversational interfaces or just chatbots – but the basic concept is similar: using natural language, achieve a result by conversing with a machine. Chatbots form part of the larger “messaging” universe and represent a new trend in how information is accessed, decisions are made and communication is carried out. This messaging technology has been heralded as revolutionary and fundamentally changing the way we interact with devices. But perhaps it is the way that people communicate that has fundamentally changed and that has cleared the path for this “new tech revolution.” We have become comfortable communicating via short-typed interactions and carrying on multiple asynchronous conversations at the same time. Experts predict that we will all soon be talking to companies over some conversational platform. Some of those conversations will be conducted with humans, some with “bots” and for some we may not even know (or care) either way. Over time, this distinction will be intentionally blurred by making bots more human-feeling and ensuring that the user will interact “with either human agent or computer bot in roughly the same interaction paradigm.”
Chatbots in Business
It comes as no surprise that chatbots are popping up increasingly in business environments everywhere. In business, the ability to master how to communicate with customers is key. So, a software that is designed to complete certain tasks, make searches more efficient and communicate directly with humans is ideal for many businesses. With the help of platforms like Facebook Messenger, business bots have been brought into the messaging environment. Since Facebook’s April 2016 announcement of its tools for building bots that operate inside its Messenger platform, over 23,000 developers have signed up, and over 11,000 bots have been built. Today’s customer expects far more than many businesses are equipped to offer. Bots that are integrated into messaging platforms provide cost-effective ways to deliver on many of those expectations.
Chatbots Within The Accounting Environment
Chatbots in an accounting environment are generally no less effective than in business. In fact, they tackle repetitive accounting functions that many business owners are relieved to delegate. Software providers are working on chatbots that help manage business finances, such as expenses. This allows businesses to focus on other tasks. Turning their focus to small business owners, bot software creators are acknowledging the multi-tasked environment that small businesses must navigate. Accounting bots are equipped to deal with a growing freelance and sharing economy by reaching them with applications they are familiar with, particularly Facebook Messenger. To date, chatbots’ reach into the more complex areas of accounting is limited. Their reach will continue to grow and it’s not inconceivable that bots will supplant many of the functions that today are firmly in human hands. Looking at a couple of the functions that chatbots have already mastered will give us some insight into the areas that may soon be within their range of competencies.
What Chatbots Do Really Well for Accounting – Now and Later
Chatbots’ entry into the accounting field has largely assumed a supportive role with the goal of simplifying administrative processes and workflows. To a large extent, chatbots have leveraged the technologies that were already in place. Bots can efficiently and seamlessly bring information to the user in a format that is familiar, personal and sometimes even entertaining. Employing a bot to handle customer and international business queries around the clock is both convenient and cost–effective. Chatbots come equipped with limitless patience, flawless memories and a tireless work ethic. Their developers are looking for ways to augment their “customer service” credentials by not only handling questions but also providing suggestions and advice. In other words, developers are looking for ways to expand on the bots already positive experience and move it to the next level. From a strict marketing perspective, this is done by pairing the two best aspects of bots: engagement and automation. From an accounting perspective, the future (expanded) role of chatbots can be far less direct and much more challenging. Forrester Research conducted a survey which reveals that clients are cautious and deliberate when it comes to matters involving money or finance driven transactions.
As chatbots improve over time and technology takes them to the point where a dialogue becomes more than just a sequence of independent conversational pairs, the possibility for bots expanding their function within an accounting context is a foreseeable advancement. Moving from transactional services (like sourcing information and communicating the results) to providing actual advice and problem solving strategies is a future goal that requires the development of “understanding” of discourse context – in other words, a chatbot with enhanced learning capabilities.
Chatbots have entered the business and accounting world and in a measured but functionally effective manner. They have introduced themselves via channels that were already familiar to many users and adopted their technology to leverage and maximize existing resources. Their roles have been largely confined to transactional administrative functions, such as sourcing information effortlessly and communicating those results. These actions have greatly improved the quality of communication with clients and internal departments within the organization. Overall, their input, albeit limited, has been efficient and positive. Future iterations of chatbots are inevitable and the growth of their involvement in higher accounting functions will undoubtedly unfold in a more cautious manner. This will perhaps result in a genuine accounting partnership between humans and chatbots.