Chatbots (or digital assistants) have been around for a while, but their use has soared in recent years, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, and is expected to climb even higher. Not only are these AI-powered automated software robots rapidly growing smarter, but they're also becoming increasingly capable of handling recruitment tasks such as answering job seekers' questions, prescreening candidates, and scheduling interviews. (One of their most valuable contributions toward recruitment is their ability to recruit 24-7: at any time of day or night, a chatbot can connect a job seeker with positions that best match their skills, experience, and interests.) In order to best leverage chatbots for their own recruitment, though, hiring managers and HR staff first need a basic understanding of what they do and how they work.
The Rise of the Chatbot
The first chatbot, ELIZA , was created in 1966, but it took a few more decades for the technology to be developed well enough for widespread use. Only in 2016, for example, did Facebook begin allowing software developers to put chatbots on Messenger. Other big brands then started creating their own digital assistants, and software vendors soon entered the ring with the specialized voice-based technology known as conversational AI.
The growing use of AI shows no sign of slowing: research published by Deloitte in March 2020 stated that "63 percent of the leaders surveyed already view AI as 'very' or 'critically' important to their business success, and that number is expected to grow to 81 percent within two years." 1 Why the sudden boom in popularity? Thanks to rapid advances in machine learning technology, AI now "learns" from its own experiences, becoming more "humanlike" and valuable to businesses.
Along the way, chatbots took on the ability to use natural language processing and became increasingly sophisticated in their abilities to mimic human conversation. Not surprisingly, compared to survey participants in 2018, "twice as many consumers surveyed in 2019 would knowingly engage with chatbots because they are 'very helpful.'"2 CIOs surveyed in 2019 identified chatbots as the main AI-based application used in their enterprises, and at that time experts predicted that "by 2022, 70 percent of white-collar workers will interact with conversational platforms on a daily basis."3 And in a 2019 survey of "customer service decision makers in the US, CA [Canada], and the UK," 89 percent of respondents ranked chatbots and virtual agents among "the most useful AI/automation technologies for personalizing customer interactions."4
Chatbots are making great strides in many sectors, but have been especially powerful performers to human resources. As far back as 2017, 58 percent of surveyed job seekers reported feeling "fairly to extremely comfortable interacting with chatbots to answer questions in the application and interview process."5 And just two years later, "88 percent of companies globally [were] already [using] AI in some way for HR." 6
Where to Position Chatbots
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic kicked chatbot adoption into high gear, with the use of this technology increasing tremendously over the past year and all signs pointing to continued high growth even after the pandemic ends. Companies that aren't already using chatbots for recruitment should consider doing so soon if they want to stay competitive with other brands in their industries. Integrating digital assistants into its talent-acquisition strategy can save an organization time and money, bring in quality candidates, deliver insights into candidate behavior, and enhance the hiring experience for both the job hunter and the recruiter.
To make the most productive use of chatbots for recruitment purposes, companies need to figure out where their chatbots should live by determining where their targeted candidates spend their time online and what their preferences are. Many people assume that chatbots are found only on websites. But chatbots can text with candidates, too, and communicate via not only Messenger but other applications (such as WhatsApp and Slack) as well. Companies that already have chatbots in hand can do some test runs on the Web as well as on texting and other platforms and, by comparing response rates for each, determine which options work best for them.
Third-party tools such as Google Analytics can help companies determine how candidates find their career sites and what they do once they get there. (For example, do they come in through job boards or through Messenger? Do they hit the "apply" button right after reading the job description, or do they go to the "contact us" section to send an e-mail asking for more information before they submit an application?) Keep in mind that different demographic groups have different communication preferences. For example, the vast majority of Millennials would rather text than talk, and job searches are increasingly taking place via mobile devices, not just via desktops and laptops.
The most straightforward approach for a company to figure out where its recruitment bots should live is to ask the candidates. Use a bot to tell job seekers "We'd like to stay in touch" and ask whether communication by text, e-mail, Messenger, WhatsApp, or some other application is most convenient for them. (Organizations that don't yet have chatbot technology but are planning to implement it can include this question on their application forms.)
How to Get the Most Out of Chatbots
Three of the most widely discussed ways chatbots are used in recruitment are for answering frequently asked questions, prescreening candidates, and scheduling interviews. But they can also be leveraged for many other, less obvious functions.
Job hunters often favor interacting with chatbots over talking with humans because the chatbots can deliver basic information quickly. The types of questions most frequently asked of chatbots cover how to apply for jobs, details (such as salary) about open positions, and updates on the status of a submitted application. Since the pandemic began, however, new questions have cropped up on topics such as COVID-19 preparedness, remote work and work-from-home policies, and medical and personal leave paid benefits. When training a chatbot, organizations should be sure to include questions that cover topics that are likely to interest applicants. Possibilities include:
- Who is a good fit?
- What are my prospects for career advancement?
- How many breaks do I get per shift?
- Where are your offices located?
- What amenities does the office have?
- What should I bring to the interview?
- Can you describe the company culture?
Automating prescreening and other processes
AI-enabled digital assistants can rapidly prescreen candidates on the basis on their applications, resumes, and other written materials, as well as prerecorded video interviews. This prescreening frees recruitment staff to focus on functions that require a human touch, including follow-up live interviews (conducted either virtually through two-way video or in person) with the most qualified applicants. In addition to prescreening, chatbots can handle other routine recruitment processes, such as background checks, skills assessments, and requisitions routing.
Companies need to make the most of their HR staff, and adding interview scheduling to chatbots' responsibilities gives recruiters more time to work on sourcing and building relationships with in-demand talent.
Representing the company's brand
Brand reputation matters to job seekers, with 39 percent of women and 33 percent of men saying "the reputation or brand of the company is 'very important' to them when considering a job move." 7By helping a company strengthen its brand, chatbots also help boost the company's bottom line: strong employer branding can enable organizations to lower their per-hire costs by as much as 43 percent. 8
Engaging with job seekers
Potential candidates can get turned off when companies don't get back to them ASAP. But chatbots can do much more than just initiate engagement by welcoming newcomers to an organization's career site, asking how they can help, and answering FAQs. When companies capture job seekers' contact information, chatbots can also maintain candidate engagement later by thanking them for applying, reminding them of interviews, keeping them updated on their application status, and informing them of future job openings that arise.
Even when current employees aren't actively looking for jobs, they are still usually interested in learning about possible job opportunities. Recruitment chatbots can reach out to—and work one-on-one with—both active job seekers and passive job seekers. (In fact, because interaction with a chatbot requires less commitment, passive job seekers may be more willing to engage with chatbots than with recruiters, this helping companies avoid wasting resources on potential candidates who are less likely to become active applicants.) With the pandemic making in-person job fairs tough (if not impossible) to pull off, chatbots can also help organizations increase their outreach by facilitating virtual job fairs while still leaving room for recruiters to manage conversations themselves if they wish.
Today, organizations are striving to increase their diversity across regional and national borders and across demographic factors such as ethnicity, gender, and age. Remote-work arrangements that became widespread during the pandemic are likely to continue to some degree after it ends, thus improving the geographical diversity of companies' talent pools (aided in part by chatbots' multilingual capabilities). Chatbots can also be used to help prevent unconscious bias during candidate prescreening.
Setting up a Recruitment Chatbot
Most recruiters, HR staff, and hiring managers aren't AI experts—and they don't need to be. But they do need a general understanding of their chatbot's conversation capabilities, which can include the following functions:
- Some chatbots let candidates select from a list of questions and receive preprogrammed answers to them. AI-powered chatbots allow job seekers to communicate fluidly, in much the same way they would talk to a person. The chatbot interprets the text and then returns a logical response (such as a direct answer to a question or a link to a helpful resource).
- Website chatbots can work on either an always-on baseis on or an opt-in basis. A chatbot might proactively engage visitors to a career site by initiating the conversation with them, or it might wait until the candidate clicks on a branded chatbot widget (usually located in the lower right-hand corner of the screen) to invite the interaction.
- Using AI to analyze job seekers' motivations and frustrations, a recruitment chatbot can even be programmed to urge the candidate to apply for the job they've just looked at, allowing a company to assess the effectiveness of its job descriptions and adjust its recruitment strategies.
- Chatbots may also engage candidates via text or another messaging application. (For example, candidates can text advertised keywords to a shortcode to launch a texting chatbot.)
A chatbot can be customized in myriad ways. For example, it can be trained (using simple logic) to recognize and reply to countless questions. It can also have a distinct personality and name. Updating the chatbot is merely a matter of opening the script and making the changes.
A Chatbot Success Story
With more than 175 stores in five states, Domino's franchisee RPM Pizza Inc. is one excellent illustration of an organization that's customized its chatbot to act as an extension of its brand. With an application tracker that mirrors the pizza tracker that Domino's customers can use to track their orders in real time, "Dottie" is cheerful, courteous, highly competent, and also a true expert on pizza trivia. But Dottie has a serious side, too. In her first year on the job only, the multifaceted chatbot managed to send out more than a quarter of a million texts, an effective way to communicate with the target candidate group—Millennials and Gen Zers—who are rarely without their smartphones.
With Dottie's help, RPM Pizza has seen a 66 percent increase in application, a 50 percent reduction in application time, and a 50 percent drop in time to hire.9
Chatbots are here to stay—and growing in popularity. Candidates now often expect to interact with chatbots as part of the application process, and companies are increasingly making use of these AI tools to streamline their hiring processes and improve their bottom lines. With their impressive versatility, chatbots can be customized to meet the needs of any organization.
iCIMS Inc. is a leading provider of innovative Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) talent-acquisition solutions that help businesses win the war for top talent. To learn more about how iCIMS can help your organization, visit www.icims.com.