By Thom Kenney, CEO SmashFly Technologies
Adapted from an article published after TAtechEurope 2018
Last year, I was fortunate enough to be one of the keynote speakers at TAtechEurope 2018 (click here to learn about TAtechEurope 2019), a conference that brought together some of the brightest minds in recruiting technology and artificial intelligence — including Bogomil Balkansky, Google’s VP of Cloud Recruiting Solutions.
We covered a lot of ground over a couple days in Dublin, Ireland, but there was one trend — or buzzword — in particular that stood out: chatbots.
I’m sure you’ve seen one somewhere as you browse through your digital life. Want to know more about a shoe you’re looking at online? An increasing number of eCommerce retailers are using chatbots to answer basic question and even show you some other shoes you didn’t realize you wanted. Want a credit line increase from your bank? Yep, even financial institutions — often laggards in adopting new technology — are using chatbots to give customers an instant answer. Want to engage potential or current customers on Facebook? You can actually create a chatbot of your own to start a conversation without customers needing to leave Facebook.
What About Talent Acquisition?
OK, so that’s the outside world. And that’s consumer marketing. What about HR and talent acquisition? In our world, chatbots are becoming more common and more relevant. And for good reason. Candidates — like consumers — have been programmed to expect immediate answers and easy access to information. If they have a question about a job, they don’t want to dig through a career site to find it. And if they give you their information, they often expect you to do something with it — email them more information, match them to relevant jobs, help them schedule an interview, etc.
A chatbot can help you do all of that. But it can also help you do none of it. It really depends on the chatbot you choose, the depth of technology behind it, and how well it integrates with the rest of your systems. Unfortunately for talent acquisition pros, figuring that out isn’t easy.
I’ve spent my career in technology and I’ve seen the very wide spectrum — both in vendor quality and buyer savvy — that typically exist in new technology markets. Generally, there are solutions that claim to be something they’re not, solutions that are marginally good at the thing they claim to be, and solutions that are genuinely equipped to creatively solve really interesting, really complex business problems.
Chatbots in talent acquisition are no different. Some are little more than good marketing. Some are simply applying basic automation to a new interface and calling it AI. And some are genuinely intelligent and adaptive technologies — leveraging Natural Language Processing (NLP) and machine learning to understand semantic nuance, always deliver the right answer, and learn over time to get smarter about how to respond.
How the Heck Do You Sift Through the Noise?
Since joining SmashFly, a growing number of customers and prospective customers have told me they want to bake a chatbot into their talent acquisition and candidate engagement strategy. But many of these customers admit that they don’t necessarily know exactly why they want a chatbot or what it can do for them.
They just want it. Because everyone else is talking about it and because they don’t want to be left on the fringes of the next big trend.
I can relate. We’re human, after all, and we’re constantly enticed with what’s next. Remember when not having “big data” meant you were going to crash and burn as a company? Everyone scrambled to get a big data solution, and many times those solutions resulted in less business intelligence for an organization — partly because some solutions were half-baked and partly because customers didn’t actually know what they wanted to do with that data. Today, the chatbot trend is suffering from a similarly hazy understanding of what it is, and more importantly, how it can make a difference.
The Fundamental Value of a Chatbot
Let’s hone in on the real value a chatbot can deliver to an enterprise talent acquisition team that’s often short on time and resources: Efficiency.
Humans don’t scale as quickly or as easily as computing resources. And recruiters, as great as they might be at their jobs, can’t be everywhere at any time — on-the-ready to answer a very similar set of questions from every candidate they talk to. This impacts an organization in two ways. First, if recruiters are spending all of their time answering a standard set of questions, it creates horrible inefficiency in your process. And second, if a candidate can’t talk to a human, they’ll dig around elsewhere to find answers to their questions. If they can’t find it on your career site, they’ll go elsewhere.
If a candidate arrives at your career site and wants to know more about the jobs you have open, the benefits you offer, the values you hold dear, or the culture you’ve created, a chatbot can often answer all of them, and much faster than a human ever could. So, why not let them do the work for you — giving people access to the information they need in a moment’s notice and freeing your team up to focus on more impactful activities.
A Real-World Example of the Power of Chatbots
During my time as a Master’s student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, I had the pleasure of observing a project led by Dr. Ashok Goel. Namely, the invention of Jill Watson, a chatbot built for Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science program.
Leveraging advanced techniques like knowledge-based AI and natural language processing, Dr. Goel and his team created an AI-based teaching assistant that was able to answer many of the online students’ questions. By focusing on continuous improvement of Jill’s performance, she (notice how I’ve started to personify and humanize this virtual thing) was able to answer questions with 97% accuracy. I doubt those numbers are higher for human teaching assistants and they don’t often return answers as quickly as Jill did. It was a clear demonstration of the power of chatbots.
You can read more about Dr. Goel’s work in this great Wired article, but I want to issue an important caveat: Jill wasn’t naturally intelligent out of the gate. And getting Jill to where she is today didn’t happen overnight.
Truth is, every good chatbot needs humans to help train them, a hurdle often misunderstood by companies looking to employ them. This knowledge base and supervised learning is critical to how effective the chatbot is at answering questions and having the agility to know how to handle questions that haven’t been pre-programmed. Paradox.ai, a SmashFly partner and a leader in AI-powered chatbots, is an excellent example of a vendor in the HR and TA space that recognizes the role of humans in training chatbots. I’ve seen firsthand just how robust Paradox’s knowledge building is.
As a result, Paradox’s Olivia — like Georgia Tech’s Jill Watson — is incredibly effective at feeling like a human. And as Olivia’s knowledge base continues to build. Over time, she only gets better at answering questions as autonomously as a human.
Go All-In on Chatbots, but Be Careful Who You Choose
I’m all in on chatbots. And I can certainly see why everyone wants one.
But before you add a chatbot to your next RFP or begin a journey toward implementing one on your career site, I’ll offer one final statement of caution: Make sure the one you choose has depth and real intelligence baked into its foundational codebase. And make sure it isn’t just a chatbot, but a conversational medium that’s fully integrated into your other core systems.
The best chatbots can scale to any number of candidate queries and deliver engagement that’s uniquely relevant to the candidate on the other end of the conversation. A chatbot shouldn’t just sit on your career site, it should serve as a gateway to innumerable opportunities for engagement. It should improve the perception of your employer brand and the efficiency of the hiring process for you and your candidates. It should help you and your candidates schedule interviews. Update candidates on where they are in the hiring process and quickly route the best candidates to the right hiring managers.
If that isn’t enough, it should tell the world that you’re a company that’s innovative and cares about its people, long before they get an offer.
If you choose wisely, a chatbot can do all of that. If you don’t, a chatbot can create a lot more headaches than solutions.