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On being the human behind the chat widget

For the past 5+ years, I’ve worked as the primary recipient of all chats to Tutor the People, a company that offers online, personalized tutoring for students taking the ACT, SAT, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, GRE, CPA, or in need of generalized college tutoring. Like many startup founders or small business owners, I wear a variety of hats and rely on technology to help manage our customer communications. Real-time artificial intelligence has blossomed over this time period, but we don’t currently use a bot to field questions from prospects—in fact, it’s just me 99 percent of the time. But we’ve learned that prospects have come to expect a chatbot behind our widget.

Prospects that contact us through our chat window oftentimes anticipate that I am not human. I receive many messages such as “Are you real?” or “Can I speak with a human?”

Another good one? “Please save the canned response”—and that’s typically before we’ve even begun to talk. Once I confirm that I am, in fact, flesh and bone, prospects normally respond with something along the lines of “Ok thank you, sorry, you never know who you're talking with nowadays.” And then our human interaction ensues.

This has opened my eyes to the hostility with which some people are responding to (perceived) bots. Even if I were a robot providing the exact same information via highly sophisticated Boolean logic, the question would still remain:

What modern small businesses are up against

Tutoring is a massive market, and there are major companies who have been around for 40+ years (before the internet provided us with immediate access to information). Some companies are currently using artificial intelligence to assist with the prospecting/onboarding process. This is widespread across all verticals. Just visit any modern website and you’ll probably see some sort of bot request your information.

Regardless of the protocol for onboarding a prospect, it’s clear that customers are seeking a human interaction. Many times, our customers try us after having used another tutoring option. These students make it clear that they are seeking something different. They’re not signing up for a prescribed product or a result, but instead, are seeking empathy and emotional intelligence, and for someone to understand that the task ahead is difficult, and to provide reassurance that they are up to the task, with help. Some new prospects can’t be a bit defensive in requesting a change or moderation of their purchase because they’re used to being met with policies and Terms of Services. But once students are able to connect and have a real conversation, the defensiveness dissolves, even when we have to paste in the legal language.

Regardless of the protocol for onboarding a prospect, it’s clear that customers are seeking a human interaction.

Technology in service of human interaction

Working as a student success and customer service manager, I have found that prospects—no matter what age—are seeking to connect with the person behind the portal. In my niche, these are grade school through graduate-level students and parents. They are, like most of us, inundated with constant marketing—on their phones, public transportation, the internet, streaming video subscription, and so on. We find that prospects understand that they can learn all they want about a product or service on their own, but when they reach out, they’re seeking the personality and values behind the brand. That’s why we’ve learned that, for us, scripted information isn’t going to work. Instead, our customers are , and especially during the early stages of their journey.

Eliza Morrison Nimmich is a Co-Founder of Tutor the People and Learnt. When she’s not representing a human behind a chat portal, she’s researching new business ideas or reading about productivity and mind hacking.