James Thew - Fotolia
Chatbots have graduated from purely consumer-facing applications to enterprise necessities. In the past six months, various companies have announced tools for integrating chatbots with SAP applications, and SAP SuccessFactors touted its own partnership with collaboration software vendor Slack for chatbots.
These robotic virtual assistants are gaining popularity on the enterprise side, experts note, for their ability to speed internal inquiries and save time for employees.
Several vendors besides SuccessFactors have leapt on the chatbot train. These companies have identified three use cases, in addition to human resources: procurement, sales, and internal and external customer service.
SAP recognizes the value of chatbots and plans to expand its partnerships, according to Dave Ragones, group vice president of product management at SAP SuccessFactors.
"SAP customers want to be able to interact [with the software] through conversational interfaces," Ragones said. "It's an active area of development."
Initially, SAP SuccessFactors partnered with Slack for such talent management uses as collaboration and performance management. Ragones said it now wants to use chatbots for time-off requests, employee onboarding and other HR functions that can be handled in SuccessFactors software.
Beyond Slack: Chatbots in the enterprise
Any application can use a chatbot to speed transactions, and it doesn't have to be restricted to a single platform, such as Slack, according to chatbot developers. Kore, one of the first companies to develop a bot platform for enterprises, sees almost no limit to where companies can integrate chatbots, but has identified HR, procurement, sales and service as primary focus areas, according to Robin Kearon, the vendor's senior vice president of channels and alliances.
HR chatbots can help employees change their addresses, request vacation time or perform other self-service functions without needing to log in to the HR system, according to Kearon. The chatbots can authenticate users by asking questions about such identifiers as employee numbers and dates of birth.
"Although it may seem simplistic, you have taken 20 minutes and given them back to a human to do their job," Kearon said.
Chatbots can go even further than such simple requests, and can handle onboarding of new employees, Kearon said. They can push W-2 forms to new employees, help them select benefits and provide access to company systems -- all before employees set foot in the door on their first day.
In procurement, chatbots can assist employees with the purchasing process. For example, an employee can request a purchase order through a chatbot that knows the right questions to ask, such as which vendor the employee wants to use, Kearon said. On the other side of procurement, chatbots can be used to verify if a vendor is paid, and can provide a supplier evaluation that may be stored in SAP ERP Central Component or SAP Ariba procurement software. Meanwhile, in sales, chatbots can add notes and update leads based on voice input from sales representatives, he added.
While customer service chatbots are well-known, inside the enterprise, they can also be useful for miscellaneous employee self-service, Kearon said. For example, if someone forgets their SAP password, instead of going through a CAPTCHA and email security combination, a chatbot can provide verification options and send the employee to the site to update their password.
What's important to note is that chatbots don't have to exist in Slack, Kearon said. Pretty much anything that allows communication between the SAP system and a human can be used, such as SMS or Skype.
Chatbots will evolve to perform more complex tasks
While the functions performed by chatbots seem fairly simple right now, experts expect them to become more complex.
Chatbots currently have a somewhat negative association because they are limited in their capabilities, such as determining location based on GPS signals, and then tying it into back-end systems for conversational responses. This is according to Matt Tumbleson, founder and CEO of Teckst, which makes a customer service text messaging platform that employs chatbots. However, as they evolve, chatbots may use real-time data to learn what questions users are asking, and then anticipate the data needed when called upon to perform tasks, he noted.
But chatbots, as useful as they are, and as evolved as they may become, will never entirely replace humans, Tumbleson said. While they will remove humans from basic questions and answers, such as "Where's my order?" a human will always be needed for upselling and cross-selling purposes. This, in turn, will drive more revenue for companies because their employees will not be spending time performing basic tasks in customer service or elsewhere.
For now, companies like Kore and Teckst are refining their chatbots, with Kore recently introducing artificial intelligence into its bots.
There is no shortage of chatbots for enterprises to plug into their SAP systems, so it's up to them to decide which functions to automate.
Learn more about software robotics
Read about IBM Watson AI tools for HR
Understand trends in group chat software