Joe Chamberlain

Joe Chamberlain

What can you realistically do to influence your chatbot’s personality? How do you decide what characteristics it should have? And how do you manifest it in the things it does and says?

When a person is described as having a strong personality it often means that you’ll either love or hate them. Something about them will make you warm to them or they’ll just rub you up the wrong way. In a customer service setting it’s best to avoid the latter, but how do you design the perfect personality for a chatbot that ensures your customers are left with a great experience?

Whatever your view on chatbots it is hard to deny the potential value they can bring. If you can reduce your call centre headcount by using bots instead of people you’ll make a pretty big dent on the bottom line, and a marketing bot with real-time sentiment analysis can personalise offers to tempt even the most hesitant shopper – 33% of people surveyed would prefer a chatbot for purchasing decisions – but you have to get the engagement right.

If you read any popular chatbot magazine or blog you’ll see lots of buzz around personality and how important it is. It is great advice, but what can you realistically do to influence your chatbot’s personality? How do you decide what characteristics it should have and how do you manifest it in the things it does and says?

Most of the literature focuses on some key questions:

  • Can you adapt your corporate tone of voice into a chatbot style? (Spoiler alert: the answer is ‘No’)
  • Which celebrity do you want your bot to be most like? (Most people say Stephen Fry or David Attenborough).
  • Should your bot be playful or serious? Sassy or polite? (Always a balance).
  • How should your bot approach small talk? Jokes, weather, marriage proposals… (People will ask your bot to marry them whether you like it or not).

Unfortunately, if you’re asking these questions first you’re starting in the wrong place, you’ll probably end up with a personality that doesn’t match the bot’s purpose. In my experience, the most important thing to do first is to clarify what your bot will be doing. Customers expect a certain personality in certain situations, depending on the service or product they’re buying.

A common mistake people make is to try to make the bot generically helpful and humble, with no regard for what it is for. For example, the CNN bot, helpfully sends you articles it thinks you’ll like, but unhelpfully can’t process a request to ‘unsubscribe’. That’s just annoying.

The best approach to start determining your bot’s personality is to clarify what it will and won’t be able to do and find a personality that complements it. It’s just like hiring a real person; you wouldn’t want a very nice, but useless person on the end of a phone to customers and you wouldn’t want a very rude but competent one either. Both are likely to see customers leave for a competitor.

Get moving fast – use a Design Sprint

All these moving parts make crafting a bot’s personality a challenge. Finding the sweet spot between your brand, functionality and personality traits is much more about getting the right people together and testing it with real customers than it is an exercise for marketing or tech to do in isolation. In my experience, a rapid design Sprint is a great way to make progress.

The most important outcome from any design Sprint is a set of prototype conversations that flow into integrated functionality (e.g. a conversation passing from a bot to a human agent) and example maps to articulate business rules and preferred outcomes (e.g. pass the bot to a human if it doesn’t understand three things in a row). These should be quickly tested with customers and employees. Don’t worry about finessing them too much. Road test them and you’ll make rapid progress in defining what works and what doesn’t.

All in all, personality is without doubt an important component of a successful bot, but it must be grounded in its function. Don’t waste time arguing about whether to use emojis or say things like ‘cool beans’, instead look at the job your bot will do and think about what personality you would recruit for in a human and then rapidly design some real use cases and test it with people. Build the bot that you would be happy to employ!