The Proper Way to Talk with an Internet Helpbot

The self service world is a beautiful thing. Self-checkout lines. Vending machines. Amazon. Long gone are the days of being afraid to buy, say, a carton of whipped cream chargers, an oversized balloon and the newest Glee Soundtrack, because some dowdy employee's gonna give you the stinkeye.

Also gone: the days of dialing customer service or a pharmacist to resolve some snafu with said chargers, balloon, and freakishly sweaty jazz hands. In their place are virtual assistants—no shame, no human interaction required. You know, "Abby" the pharmacy attendant "Jenn" the Alaska Airlines rep. "Anna" of Ikea. These are the helpbots.

A 2009 Forrester Research survey found that only 28-percent of US online consumers wanted to contact companies via telephone or email instead of browsing the company's website to troubleshoot on their own. After all, surfing for help, you never have to worry about that "unusually" high call volume problem. Plus it's something you can do 24/7.

While AI has been around for more than 20 years, we've seen virtual agents grow from Microsoft's animated paperclip "Clippit", which debuted in 1997, and was programmed to guide us through MS doc-making nightmares (and retired with OfficeXP) to IBM's Watson, and its ass-kicking Jeopardy skills. Today's bots aren't just guiding us to FAQs or serving as fancier site maps, they're conversing with us in natural language. And according to Pam Kostka, chief marketing officer of VirtuOz, a software maker of Virtual Agents (whose clients include eBay, Symantec and H&R block), these exchanges result in a 15% faster resolution time 10% better customer experiences. Soon, virtual agents will provide such rapid-fire solutions and whip-=smart customer service that we won't be able to tell whether were dealing with a bot or a human. We're not there yet, but one thing these service-oriented Skynets already have in common with meatbag reps is that you need to to treat them a certain way to get what you want out of them.

The Situation: You have no idea how to talk to a robot. Do you need to speak in technojargon, or in natural language?

In the past few years, VAs have gone from being mere site maps to sophisticated bots, which can book tickets and successfully troubleshoot, all by recognizing the fragmented, abbreviated language we type in (WTF? LOL. OMG!!). But they aren't trained to respond to complete sentences with a subject, predicate, and whatever else you learned about in 2nd grade. So when starting the conversation, get right to the point. Type something like "need to retract my eBay bid." (It just so happens that eBay's VAs are set up to retract your bid in a just a few steps.)

Situation: This f-ing robot must be programmed to answer questions in Pig Latin, not English, because you are getting a lot of annoyingly polite requests to rephrase your query.

Patience, Botmaster.

If your question doesn't provide an immediate solution, play with the language a bit—if you're dealing with a virtual mind of limited IQ (ie, poorly programmed), you might get completely different answers by changing a single word (like switching search terms in Google). At worst, you could be transferred to a live person—in many cases, real people are standing by to handle tough cases.

But remember: Even if you don't get the answer you're looking for, your efforts aren't in vain. Companies review conversations meticulously to find what people are asking that are not being addressed by the bot. Then, they use this data to teach the bot new tricks—like how to address your particular problem for the next time it crops up. In short? The more you interact, the smarter the virtual agents get.

The Situation: You've hit a wall with your VA: It's just NOT getting what you're asking, isn't supplying anything close to a solution, and the subject of a warm body has yet to come up.

Bust out the Curse Words. Sure, there's a time and place for being polite, but if a bot has got you in an infinite loop in which you ask a question a hundred different ways and it responds with the same not-what-you're-looking-for answer, there's one sure-fire way to break the cycle: Throw on the caps lock, key in the four-letter flame-throwers, and let the exclamation points fly.

A well-designed virtual agent will recognize your escalating frustration level and patch you through to a live agent who can handle the sophistication of your problem. And in better systems, that human will have a transcript of what the VA and you already discussed. So you won't have to re-tell your billing issue woes.

Note: It should go without saying that once your session switches from bot to person, it's best to cool it with the carpet f-bombing. Humans aren't trained to react nearly as kindly to a bad attitude as our avatar friends, and you'll get disconnected faster than you can type STFU.

Erika Stalder is an author and advice columnist. Check out her other work at erikastalder.com.

Original artwork by Gizmodo guest artist Chris "Powerpig" McVeigh. You can check him out on Flickr or Facebook. Or both!