hand with phone and graphics Ironically, the situations in which customers use chatbots are ones often fraught with anxiety, such as dealing with health, insurance, or finance. (Photo: Shutterstock)

People experience anxiety around money issues, such as financial services and health insurance. And while they look for advice from others in such situations, says a paper from the Harvard Business School, being responded to by a chatbot instead of a human can drive their anxiety even higher.

Yet if given the choice of talking to a human or a chatbot, most opt for the bot — despite the fact that their very anxiety surrounding the situation in which they find themselves (the situation that is prompting their quest for advice) has a negative effect on customer choice satisfaction, firm trust and long-term engagement.

Interestingly, just knowing they can have access to a human if they want it can improve those attitudes, but that doesn’t mean that by choosing the bot they’re opting for the best choice.

In fact, says the paper, “customer anxiety during SST [self-service technology] encounters can ultimately exert a negative influence on service relationships that firms may not have factored into their operational design — that customers in such settings may be asked to take on more responsibility for service delivery when they feel least equipped to do so.”

Related: 4 things insurers should keep in mind when embracing new technologies

How can chatbots be best utilized?

The study suggests that some operational design choices “may unintentionally provoke customer anxiety; others may offset anxiety’s impact” — and reminds that just having to use technology can be an anxiety-producing experience that cuts customer satisfaction — especially in situations where the number of choices can be overwhelming.

To make it worse, it adds, “SSTs are increasingly being deployed in settings that are inherently wrought with anxiety. Prior research has shown that when people are anxious they become advice seeking” — in other words, in need of human help.

The authors write, “SSTs, which are designed to enable customers to serve themselves without the intervention of a service employee …, can leave anxious customers isolated at a moment when they may need to access human guidance.”

A post on G2Crowd suggests that an appropriate use for a chatbot might be to answer FAQs and to automatically direct tough questions — or those it can’t answer within two tries — to a human. That’s a common theme among the business professionals whose companies rely on chatbots to interact with customers, but who rely on humans to intercede when the intricacies of the issues become too nuanced.

It also appears to be the ideal way to avoid the anxiety users experience around already-fraught issues such as finance, retirement and even health — when an individual may already be dealing with a tough diagnosis and finds the use of a chatbot just too challenging to satisfy his or her needs.

Related: Chatbots carry new opportunities for insurers, agents

This article first appeared in BenefitsPRO, a sister publication of PropertyCasualty360.com.