Conversational commerce and its role in retail

Red Ant, 10th October 2017

The history of conversational commerce and chatbots is long and varied, so why is everyone getting excited about chatbots right now?

The history of conversational commerce and chatbots is long and varied – from artificial intelligences trying to crack the Turing test to Microsoft’s Tay and her unfortunate opinions learned from the worst of Twitter and other messaging platforms.

Almost anyone who has consulted customer services online will have been invited to take part in a ‘live chat’ with an assistant – more often than not, these are bots gathering information from the brand’s website with varying levels of contextual relevance, depending on how sophisticated their programming is. Usually we can spot them from a mile off, because both questions and answers are formulated in a prescribed, syntax-specific way. Similarly, smartphone users are likely to have asked Siri or Cortana a couple of questions, if only to elicit the latest novelty response.

Clearly the concept itself is nothing new – so why is everyone getting excited about chatbots right now?

When it comes to users, there are a couple of reasons why chatbots are becoming more acceptable. First, the growing popularity of messaging platforms (Facebook M, WhatsApp, Kik, Skype and many more) has seen the majority of people signing up to at least one service and using it on a daily basis.

Second - app fatigue. Users are becoming increasingly reluctant to go to the trouble of downloading an app which will likely be used only once or twice, simply because of the effort involved in accessing it (having to move from one smartphone function to another, perhaps having to remember a password, having to search for information rather than ask for it).

From a tech industry perspective, the quality of communication with chatbots has improved immeasurably since cognitive computing reached a point where it is ‘good enough’ to recognise natural language (spoken, typed, slang, emojis – you name it) and give it context.

Finally, retailers are beginning to see the benefits of using bots to carry out simple admin-type tasks – tracking a delivery, for example, or checking stock availability – because they are relatively quick and easy to develop, cost a lot less than a branded app and don’t need updating every few months Bots fit straight into the customer’s preferred messaging platform, giving them a direct channel of communication with the retailer via text – the only function which is used by 100% of mobile phone owners.

True customer focus, true business benefits

Bots are entirely geared to what the customer wants – they choose the platform, they decide how they want to talk to the bot, they don’t have to download an app, go to a website or remember any passwords. All they have to do is open the messaging service they already use every day and ask a question – and because it’s a bot, it’s available to answer whenever and wherever the customer wants, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Retailers can support this customer choice on a very wide range of platforms without the need to build bespoke interfaces, saving time and money.

Chatbots are a quick, cost-effective, customer-focused way to elevate service levels and hand control of the customer experience to the customers themselves.