As the CEO of a startup, I’ve always tried to set aside time to get to know each new team member as they come onboard. As such, when I asked my partner when would be good for a team meeting and he told me to ask Amy, I was momentarily taken aback. Who was Amy? Was there a new intern who had slipped through the net?
It turns out that my memory still serves me. He was referring to Amy.ai, the new chatbot we were trialing to schedule staff and client meetings. Over the last year we have trialled and brought onboard a number of bot applications — AI powered software programs that utilize messaging to carry out a range of ‘personal assistant’ tasks.
Bots are hot right now. When investors such as Y Combinator, Greylock Partners and SV Angel start pumping funding into an emerging technology, it tells you that it is a space that you should consider moving. Over the last few years bots have been created to do everything from tell you the weather, manage your personal finances, to help your team communicate more efficiently.
Fortunately I spend part of the year in California and in Medellin, Colombia, the ‘City of Eternal Spring’, so I don’t need help with weather forecasts, however our team has rolled out a number of bots to offer us a helping hand in various aspects of our day to day jobs.
Scheduling meetings and appointments
The illusive Amy Ingram is a chatbot created by x.ai, a startup based in New York. According to a recent study by Atlassian, the average employee can be expected to attend as many as 62 meetings each month, and playing email ping pong trying to organize meetings can become a real headache.
Our team tries to limit the amount of time spent in team meetings to one to two hours per week, but add client phone calls, and back and forth conversations into the mix, and setting up meetings quickly becomes a drain on productivity.
Now, whenever we need to schedule a meeting or call, we can simply CC firstname.lastname@example.org into the email chain. The bot then does all the legwork between all parties with different potential time slots based on their availabilities. When ‘she’ has found a time which is convenient for everyone, she sends us a calendar invite with a time, date and location or dial in number.
We have found this tool especially useful because our company has clients in different time zones all over the world, teams based in three different cities, and a flexible remote working policy. Using Amy has really cut the amount of time spent calculating time differences and trying to find times that work for everyone involved. Amy is here to stay, and I didn’t even need to take her for lunch to welcome her to the team.
Keeping up to date with media coverage on the move
As a marketing startup, our team needs to be up to date with breaking news, and be able to check media results for our clients in real time, even when on the move. I recently downloaded the Whatsapp bot Qeubot and have encouraged our account managers and editorial team to do the same too. Qeubot is new Whatsapp bot which is legal, free, and doesn’t require root permissions or have any complicated setup processes. But to get access to its news function — the part which we find most useful — costs a mere $1.69 on the Google Play store.
Now, if I want to check out what is happening in the tech world, or check whether any of our clients have had any mentions in the press, I simply need to type COMPANY NAME @ news into a Whatsapp message, and Qeubot will provide me with media links directly in the messenger app. You can set the amount of results you want to be shown in the settings, so as not to get overwhelmed with too many articles.
Considering the amount of bots available for integration with other popular messaging apps like Slack, Kik, Telegram and Facebook messenger, many have been wondering why Whatsapp have been so slow to join the party. This was intentional from the popular messaging app, who quickly banned Whatsbot back in 2015, on the grounds that opening up its API to bots was against the service’s terms and conditions. However, since being acquired by Facebook in February of 2016 — which has actively encouraged the creation of bots for Facebook Messenger — things have changed.
Keeping track of expenses and finances
As with a lot of growing startups, our team manages many of our small day to day administrative tasks in-house. While it would be great to have a full time accountant, generally we outsource our important financials to a trusted professional only for big contracts or when extra help is required, allowing us to invest more on bringing on full time staff which can directly help our clients in more outward facing roles.
As such, it lands on myself as CEO, and a few other key team members to deal with managing our books and keeping track of expenditures for day to day operations, on top of our main roles. While this has never become a problem, it can be tough to remember to note down every small expenditure when meeting clients, or organizing events, and keep track of different accounts and payments, especially when you have a million other things going on.
Last year, a friend recommended a finance bot to me called Pegg from Sage, which is designed to help SMBs keep track of their accounts, expenditures, and incomings via popular messaging tools like Slack, Facebook Messenger or Skype. The bot’s capabilities are really impressive, it can give you a nudge when payments are overdue, and chase up customers or suppliers to remind them that they need to make their payment, or even pay our employees, amongst many other functions.
Like many other ‘personal assistant’ chatbots, Pegg converses using natural language, giving the impression you are interacting with your own personal (human) assistant. Said Kriti Sharma, the VP of bots and AI at Sage, to Microsoft Technical Fellow John Shewchuk and Steven Guggenheimer on DECODED, “We want people’s work life, running their business to be as easy as talking to a friend.”
Another chat bot we’ve been exploring is Boltfare, which can help people find flights up to 80 percent off the cost. Says The Next Web’s Matt Hughes, “Boltare is a pretty nifty Facebook Chatbot that can find you ultra-cheap fares without you having to do anything. Just tell it where your home airport is, and where you want to go.”
Particularly as our team increasingly attends conferences both in the US and abroad, this is a bot that will become increasingly useful.
Communicating on our social channels
We’re fortunate to work to have customers from all corners of the globe, and one of our most visited sources is our company’s Facebook page.
Early stage startups are often unsure as to whether they are ready to begin a PR campaign, their chances of getting media coverage, or are simply have doubts for a company of their size. As such, we need to be prepared to deal with floods or questions from potential customers, or we risk missing out on opportunities.
As hardworking as our customer service team is, they would be unable to man the channels all day every day. As such, we’ve begun experimenting with messenger bots on our Facebook pages.
To make the most out of a bot for your Facebook page, you need to choose a bot which can share and respond to basic queries in a seemingly natural manner, connect to third-party services like calendars, direct visitors to interesting and engaging content which they will find relevant, and most importantly, pass the necessary information and contacts onto your human customer service teams so they can follow up any enquiries which the bot can’t deal with itself.
We believe there’s a great future here, however we also are taking our time to adopt these bots for our social platforms. The reason is there’s still room for improvement. Said The Next Web’s Nate Swanner in regards to Facebook’s bots, “The future looks bright, sure, but bots today are not very bright at all.”
The progression of bots is occurring rapidly, however. Said Lili Cheng, Distinguished Engineer and creator of Microsoft’s bot framework, earlier this year the company already had around 130,000 developers building on its bot framework.
While it might be a while before our COO stops making fun of me for worrying that Amy was a new employee who I had ignored, less than a year after beginning our own personal bot adventure we’ve had a positive experience and will continue to keep our eyes open for new bots to bring into the fold. Using bots offers us a little breathing space for our team by picking up the slack with small helpful tasks, and allows us to stay connected with visitors and clients regardless of the time or day.
This article was Co-Written by Craig Corbett
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.