Chatbots: a question of trust

Chatbots are long term relationships, not one night stands

It’s hard for brands to build trust.

Consumers can be suspicious of brand engagement, because ultimately we’re not very keen on being sold to. Developing trust is often about establishing an emotional connection, making us feel good about spending our money, or devoting our time.

But we’re now having one-on-one conversations with brands, both publically (e.g. Twitter or Facebook) and with chatbots in private. These direct, immediate interactions make the question of trust more pressing, because the brand is suddenly active in our personal space. Do we trust them with our needs, our wants, our desires?

Traditionally, when we build a relationship with a salesperson over a major life purchase (a car, a house, a new appliance), we expect them to remember us, our conversations and circumstances (John Lewis has this nailed). In return, we develop a trust in them and their understanding of our needs. In the digital sphere, this barely ever happened – until chatbots came along. Not only do they relieve us from the administrative drudgery of researching and purchasing, but they can remember our preferences, our proclivities and the things we like. By establishing trust and delivering value, they help us along a journey.

Put it this way: the best chatbots are long term relationships, not one night stands.

This development is revolutionary, but nothing is ever easy. Our trust in chatbots will still be hard-won. After all, whenever we delegate tasks that we’re used to doing ourselves, it can create a niggle in the back of our minds. Would we be better doing this ourselves? How are these chatbots making decisions? Can the algorithms be trusted? Are they influenced by factors I’m not aware of, and are they steering me towards choices I wouldn’t necessarily have made on my own? But actually, these doubts create the opportunity for chatbots to stand up and prove themselves, to make it clear what their capabilities are and to deliver on those promises. If they can help us shop for, say, a washing machine, without us having to comb through reviews and technical data and simply by us answering a few questions, it’s a slam dunk. It helps us.

We know that convenience and utility can break down our resistance to technological change. For example, we may have a low level concern about being hacked and all our money being stolen, but it doesn’t stop us using online banking – because as an experience, it’s vastly preferable to the one that went before. If something offers us a greater benefit than the thing we fear, that’s when things start to take off.


So, this is the chatbot’s time. Yes, its capabilities depend upon accumulating knowledge about us and the way we live, but every day we see new ways in which big data can power our choices positively, whether it’s the news we receive, our matches in dating apps or suggestions of the next film we might want to watch. We constantly give information to non-human entities; Google Now’s sense of where we live and where we work might have seemed creepy five years ago, but today it gives us real benefits, whether that’s assessing traffic nearby, telling us about the weather or fetching us a taxi.

The truth is that certain processes are better handled by code than by humans, the number and type of those processes are increasing, and one of those manifestations – chatbots – will change the service industry for ever. Our attitudes may be slow to change, chatbots can force that change by adding value to our lives and establishing trust. Ultimately, that trust may turn out to be far greater than in a human being doing precisely the same job.


Rob is Client Services Director at +rehabstudio. He joined the team from Samsung where he looked after brand and product marketing, and takes his sneaker collection much too seriously.

Rob Bennett