Who wants to chat with a chatbot? More people than you'd think, says Brian Heikes, VP of product at 3Cinteractive, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based mobile marketing company.

Techies have long been talking about chatbots. And once Facebook announced this spring that brands could create their own bots for Facebook Messenger, the rest of the world caught on as well. A chatbot is software that simulates online conversations with humans -- helping customers place orders, check in on deliveries, ask questions and more. Thousands of businesses are now using them on Facebook, Twitter and Slack, and for standard texts. And maybe, Heikes says, you should set one up, too.

1. Imagine the customer

It’s natural: You want your customer to love and interact with your brand. But you need to be realistic. Is a customer coming to chitchat all day with your bot? No. So what would they come for? Maybe to check product availability? Figure it out -- hey, maybe ask your customers! -- and then plan a bot that’s simple, predictable and useful. Don’t forget: A poor bot interaction is worse than no bot at all.

2. Plot your bot

Bots aren’t all-knowing; they need your information. Want a chatbot for customer service? You’ll need predetermined customer-service scripts (so if a customer asks about product shipping, say, the bot replies accordingly), a tool for accessing and logging customer data and software that gives bots access to answers, like up-to-the-minute tracking info. For a sales-related bot, you’ll need catalog and inventory data, product classifications (to ease navigation) and assets (pictures, descriptions and pricing).

3. Give the green light

If you have a development team, they can set up a basic bot in a day. If not, you can hire someone to do it. Bots capable of handling simple interactions with fixed scripts and basic capabilities might run you a few thousand dollars to develop, while full-scale artificial intelligence will cost significantly more.

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