What Is An AI Agent? And Is It the Same as a Chatbot?

By Machielle Thomas

Artificial intelligence (AI) has transformed how companies and customers engage with one another. The technology works hard to resolve questions and issues with speed, automate workflows and tasks for efficiency, and generally make lives easier for both customers and agents. 

Speaking of live agents: a clear way AI has improved customer support operations is with the AI agent. AI agents can take some of the responsibilities of live agents so they can focus on complex issues that need human intervention to solve.

Now, when thinking about an AI agent and what it does or looks like, does it look like a pop-up with options to choose from with pre-selected answers? Let’s hope not because that’s a chatbot. 

AI agents and chatbots serve similar purposes but their technological bases are different, with one leaning more scripted, and the other more intuitive, using the full power of generative AI capabilities. 

Ahead, we’ll dig into what an AI agent can do, its benefits for customer support organizations, and how it differs from chatbots. 

What is an AI agent? 

An AI agent is a self-service autonomous tool, meaning it can perform tasks and respond to situations based on its environment. This type of AI tool can take in information, process it, and then act accordingly to the circumstance that it’s in. 

Consider the self-driving car: this is an AI agent. For this guide, we’re going to focus on how an AI agent is useful for customers and companies, but this is a key example for understanding how AI agents work independently based on the information they are given. 

AI agents use technologies such as generative AI, large language models (LLM), and natural language processing (NLP). It doesn’t need to be prompted more than once: a single objective or directive usually does the trick. 

For customer support orgs, think of AI agents as an extension of that; another type of agent in an existing ecosystem to support customers. Because AI agents run on the above technologies— consuming large quantities of proprietary data and brand history—they’re able to give a more personalized experience to your customers. AI agents, too, can be updated and customized accordingly by consistently looking at your existing data that informs the agent. 

AI agents are, in a word, flexible. They’re able to respond to situations or directives because of the data used to program it so they understand and can interact autonomously. This doesn’t mean AI agents aren’t going to make mistakes because 100% accuracy is a high number to reach. It does mean that AI agents are able to detect issues and correct them as best as possible. 

What is a chatbot? 

On the other hand, a chatbot is a more fixed AI solution that isn’t autonomous nor is it particularly flexible. That doesn’t mean it isn’t extremely useful, especially in customer support situations. 

Chatbots answer simple questions and require decision trees to do so. They aren’t as intuitive as a human-centered AI agent.

Chatbots perform what they are scripted. Think of it as a pre-determined call-and-response. What a chatbot does well is handling basic information or directing customers to information they need. An example may be someone using a pop-up chatbot on a company’s website to find out the status of their order. Chatbots are set-up with enough data to perform this very regular, ordinary task. Need to ask a simple question about a product? A chatbot will direct you to the FAQ or an article that can more appropriately and thoroughly explain what it does. 

Where AI agents are intuitive and reactive, chatbots are scripted. They need to be manually built, with prompts and the use of prompt engineers, to have preset questions with preset answers. They don’t deviate away from those because they can’t. 

Similarities and differences between chatbots and AI agents

Chatbots and AI agents use very similar technology and have very similar goals. In the case of customer support, their goal is to help customers find answers to their questions. It’s just a matter of how complex the question or issue, and will the customer be able to have it resolved via preset answers or with a roving, autonomous agent. 

Similarities between chatbots and AI agents:

  • Customer support focused. Each technology is dedicated to enhancing customer support by being available at literally all times (and, if programmed this way, as multilingual support options) to find answers to customer queries.
  • Automation is key. Both tools can automate tasks and workflows, particularly tasks that are repetitive but still very necessary to complete.

Differences between chatbots and AI agents: 

  • Autonomy. AI agents react to their surroundings while chatbots aren’t even aware of their surroundings. AI agents have the ability to “talk” to customers by interacting with them and their diverse queries, and have enough of a knowledge base to source information a customer may need. Chatbots respond to customers based on preset offerings with preset answers. 
  • Conversations. And speaking of talking, AI agents are able to handle the sometimes complex conversations customers need to have with a customer support rep—AI or a live agent. Because the AI agent is reacting, it can keep up in the interaction with more flexibility than a chatbot. A chatbot cannot do any of this. 

Benefits of using an AI agent 

A chatbot is a really great option for companies who require some automated tasks and workflows and only have customers asking very simple, basic questions that can have scripted answers. If a company requires more than that, it would be worth considering an AI agent. 

Consider the following benefits an AI agent can bring to a customer organization. 

1. Enhanced customer support 

AI agents are around 24/7. That means your customers can find support at any point in the day, no matter if there’s a time zone difference. 

By being available, it signals to your customers you value that they may need a resolution to an issue on their time, not necessarily the company’s. With AI agents, too, customers may see faster times to resolution that live agents may not be able to do. 

2. Data-informed insights

AI agents are a great first stop to understanding your customer. AI agents will have the knowledge about the company and its history, product information, and any other nuance needed to interact with customers, and it will also have those interactions to reflect any trends, concerns, or behaviors back to the business. These insights are incredibly valuable as third-party cookies and information sources dry up. Here, the AI agent pulls in information directly from the customer. 

3. Cost-saving

AI isn’t here to take someone’s job. What it can do is streamline tasks, workflows, and processes through automation so that it can free up time and money for customer support orgs to focus on other timely and important work. This can have a cost-saving capability to it. By training the AI agent to perform more rudimentary, manual tasks, and to be the first line of support for customers, this can free up money in one area for businesses. 

4. Personalization

AI agents have the ability to create more curated experiences for customers. In today’s digital world, to cut through the noise to generate more loyal customers, personalizing is deeply important. AI agents have the ability to respond to the person asking the question and provide tailored recommendations, articles, and insights from the enormous pool of company proprietary data that’s available to it. AI agents can even pull from past interactions with that same customer to follow-up, understand what the issue now may be, and the best way to navigate that. 


Chatbots serve a very important function in any customer support organization. Some customers have simple questions that require simple answers. Easy! AI agents are a useful addition to any customer support organization to act as an extension of the company. They are more reactive and responsive, intuitive, and they can, ultimately, resolve as many queries as possible so customer wait time isn’t too long. 

Dive in.

Interested in generative AI for customer support? Check out this guide to learn about the 3 key pillars you need to get started.

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