7 Reasons Why Chatbots Won't Replace Real Travel Agents Anytime Soon

Technology is constantly evolving to better help travel agents and consumers.  One of the latest areas of research by travel firms exploring new technologies is the chatbot and artificial intelligence (AI) phenomena. Facebook is building chatbots into Messenger and Microsoft is investing in CaaS (Conversation as a Service) platform development including bringing chatbots into Skype.  The question is, how will chatbots affect travel agents and consumers?

The idea, in theory less than practice, is that you can use AI to effectively respond to customers through chatbots, conversational utilities that can carry on a “conversation” with the customer, answer questions - or as is being experimented with in Amazon’s Echo device - to actually order travel services like plane tickets and hotel bookings.  While the advancement of these services are certainly worthwhile to supplement services available to customers (always provide customers whatever way to interact and book that they so choose) by no means are these tools a replacement or augmentation of the authentic travel agent experience.

The top seven reasons why qualified travel advisors should not be afraid of losing their job to a chatbot:

  1. Chatbots can't distinguish between "cheap" and "value"
  2. Chatbots can "listen" to the client, but they do not "understand" the client
  3. Chatbots are not proactive, but rather entirely reactive to input
  4. Chatbots lack the same empathy that is a core differentiator of the agent (e.g. chatbots never traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands on a cruise ship)
  5. Complex travel has interdependent characteristics requiring tactic and experiential knowledge (e.g. if the client’s flight gets in late, they probably are not going to want to scuba dive at night)
  6. Travel agents can anticipate intentions and expectations without the client expressly stating them
  7. Travel agents take responsibility, whereas chatbots are binary and inculpable

Putting 'People First' in Your Digital Strategy

There's a great Executive Summary from Accenture called "Technology Vision 2016" that addresses the fact that over 20% of the global economy is now digital, and that number is expected to increase to 25% in the next several years.  Yet, despite all the commercial value of digital, it remains as important as ever to preserve the role of real people in the digital economy.  Humans are not going to be replaced with technology, but rather technology should be leveraged and augmented to create better processes, businesses and standards of living.

"Winners in the digital age do much more than tick off a
checklist of technology capabilities. They know their success
hinges on people. The ability to understand changing customer
needs and behaviors is, of course, vital. But the real deciding
factor in the era of intelligence will be a company’s ability
to evolve its corporate culture to not only take advantage of
emerging technologies, but also, critically, embrace the new
business strategies that those technologies drive."

Here at Engage we talk with many customers about maintaining a healthy balance between technology and humans.  There has been a rush to marketing automation, artificial intelligence, and other digital technologies with the object of creating efficiency and cost-savings, but often at the expense of personnel implications?  On the other side of the table is humanization, manual work, and cognitive work.  Big data, automation, and humans can all play vital rolls, but to find that perfect symbiosis requires accepting some very non-digital beliefs in the ongoing qualities people bring to the table,  like creativity, tacit and experiential knowledge, and emotions like compassion and empathy.  People matter.

Some years prior to co-founding Engage I was involved in the self-service and transactional kiosk industry.  If you've done self-checkout at the grocery store, or self-checkin at a hotel, you've used kiosk technology.  For many years people thought (and some worried) that kiosk would replace humans in travel, hospitality, retail and many other places.  I mean, why would we want to pay a human $35,000 per year to do what a machine could do for $8,000 a year, right?  And, kiosks work 24x7 and very rarely call in sick.

Well, it turns out that in some scenarios people love to self-service checkout.  Still, in other situations other people don't.  If you have ten items at the grocery store, you may prefer to help yourself and get out quick.  But if you have a whole cart, it would be great to have a human help you scan your items and maybe (if you're lucky) someone to get your purchases into bags. 

The point is, there are situations where automation exclusively makes sense, and others that are richer with human injected into the process.  You don't need humans to buy a book or new pillow cases at Amazon, right?  But think about all the situations where humans could and do matter: medical advice, high-cost purchases, consultative questions, etc.  People still buy from people they like and trust and I've yet to see a technology with personality and personal selling skills, not to mentions shared HUMAN experiences that helps us relate conversationally.

So, as you embark on the next phase of your digital strategy, I challenge you to put your technology, big data and automation investments on one side of the scale, and your human beings on the other side of the scale, and try to find a healthy balance.  As you look at the products and service you offer the marketplace, consider how you can wrap them with a human layer to drive better value and experiences to your customers.  You won't go wrong with'people first' digital strategy.

Note: you can download the Accenture document here.