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How Chatbots Have Been at the Centre in the Fight Against COVID-19 The accelerated digital transformations due to the pandemic has led to a surge in chatbot use across multiple industries, as they turned to them to help meet the needs of people and answer as many queries as possible

By Kester Poh

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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With months-long, recurring lockdowns keeping many of us shuttered in our homes, smartphones have become a lifeline to life outside. 70% of internet users worldwide reported using their mobile or smartphones more due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As anxieties surrounding COVID-19 persist, these changes are likely to persist: life, for the foreseeable future, will be mediated through device screens.

In these periods of isolation, one thing that people crave is interaction. And, where other people are unavailable, artificial intelligence has stepped in.

The accelerated digital transformations due to the pandemic has led to a surge in chatbot use across multiple industries, as they turned to them to help meet the needs of people and answer as many queries as possible.

Travel companies used bots to respond to thousands of queries about cancelled flights and refunds, something that would have been difficult to manage manually. In other cases, where call centers were forced to close, chatbots were left as the only points of contact for customers.

Even in a post-pandemic world, as digital transformation expedites across all sectors in the APAC region and beyond, responsive and available around-the-clock, with guaranteed immunity against health scares, chatbots are poised to meet the need for conversation in the new age of mediated interaction.

On the Online Frontline of Medical Care

Since before the pandemic, there has been a significant rise in the use of chatbots in the fields of telemedicine and pharmaceutical services, alleviating burdens on overworked and understaffed healthcare providers by automating the processes of diagnosing symptoms, assessing the need for emergency intervention, and monitoring patient adherence in their place.

Amidst the pandemic, when the medical sector is under more pressure than ever, chatbots have become invaluable in freeing up time and resources, allowing healthcare providers to focus their efforts on fighting the outbreak and attending to their patients.

In Singapore, Doctor Covid, a chatbot developed by SingHealth and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research with support from the Integrated Health Information Systems, improves communication with 3,000 patients in community care facilities, while minimising transmission risks to healthcare workers. The chatbot broadcasts reminders and medical information to patients, and periodically checks in on their mental well-being throughout their stay. Available in multiple languages, the chatbot has been helping overcome language barriers, as well as relieving manpower constraints. Data collected from the chatbot can also be used by researchers to identify trends and risk indicators related to the virus.

Chatbots have also been used to bridge gaps in mental health support during the pandemic. NCSS' Facebook helpbot Belle has placed information on mental health-related services in Singapore right at the public's fingertips—information on helplines, services, useful articles and videos and volunteering opportunities can be easily pulled up via the chatbot, wherever and whenever one needs them.

Furthermore, by linking up the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), Belle supports individuals having suicidal feelings and thoughts, by redirecting them to SOS' Facebook messenger page where they can chat with volunteers on duty, a crucial service during these periods of isolation and uncertainty.

Reshaping Retail Through Conversational Commerce

Before the outbreak of the pandemic, it was forecasted that, by 2023, retail sales from chatbots would reach USD 112 billion. Post-COVID-19, this trend is expected to grow multifold.

Amidst lockdowns across the region, alongside the meteoric increase of mobile phone usage, e-commerce has spiked as stay-at-home orders kept shoppers at home. In particular, businesses handling necessities like groceries were among those who found chatbots crucial in ensuring business continuity freeing up hands of essential service staff during the Circuit Breaker period. As the demand for online grocery shopping surged, chatbots were on the frontline of handling customer queries, from inventory lists to restock timings, and delivery options.

And, they have gone beyond these services: As businesses look to digitize their sales floor or showroom experiences, they have been incorporating chatbots in the creation of this new breed of digital experiences.

Cycle & Carriage Singapore incorporated chatbots into their inaugural Live Stream Sales event on Facebook, which brought the showroom experience to at-home audiences on both desktops and mobile devices. The chatbot allowed audiences to seamlessly view the live stream, even as chatbots addressed their queries, sent promotional codes and followed up on the live experience. With more trade shows, fashion runways and other businesses events making the jump to a virtual stage, chatbots will see more and more creative usage that goes further than the rote answering of FAQs, tapping into the needs of a more tech-savvy generation of consumers.

The Future of Chatbots

Now valued at USD2.6 billion, the chatbot market share is projected to grow up to USD 9.4 billion in the next four years. That's a compounded annual growth rate of 29.7 per cent. In the Asia Pacific region, chatbots are growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 9%.

Chatbots have seen adoption in industries as varied as healthcare and retail where they have been streamlining manual processes and relieving loads on human staff. With the pandemic forcing the world to pivot to a digital-first approach across all sectors, they have become an invaluable asset to many businesses.

And, as consumers and retailers gain their digital sea legs and adapt to these new circumstances, we may move into a new normal where there may be days in which we spend as much time chatting with bots as with other humans. The pandemic has started a movement towards heightened curation, in-depth digital experiences and "low-touch" interactions that will continue even after the pandemic ends.

These new trends will be facilitated by chatbots, whose functions have evolved beyond simply answering queries to more sophisticated purposes—from quick queries about delivery times for your latest online shopping spree or booking an appointment with your therapist, to curating product recommendations and preempting your preferences.

Or, they may even be woven in memorable digital experiences, as friendly digital chaperones. The opportunities for chatbots are expanding in almost every vertical.

Kester Poh

Co-Founder and CEO, AiChat


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