Could chatbots redefine retail customer service?

Discussion
Apr 29, 2016

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from Retail Dive, an e-newsletter and website providing a 60-second bird’s eye view of the latest retail news and trends.

At its F8 Developer Conference in mid-April, Facebook opened its Messenger platform to chatbot services, an enhancement that the social media giant said will change the way users access information, retail goods and entertainment.

Already in heavy use in China through the ubiquitous, Facebook-like social media platform, WeChat, app-like chatbot software automates customer service tasks that are now commonly offered via phone and e-mail. These “bots” can provide customized communications from businesses like receipts, shipping notifications and live automated messages, “all by interacting directly with the people who want to get them,” according to Facebook.

Chatbots are poised to revolutionize customer interactions because the communication goes beyond the kinds of marketing now possible even on social media or mobile apps, says Robert Stephens, a co-founder of Assist, a bot messaging startup.

Mr. Stephens and Jason Goldberg, who leads commerce and content strategy at interactive digital agency Razorfish, both say that eventually bots will use data on consumers’ smartphones to help them out in all kinds of ways, from ordering tacos, checking whether Urban Outfitters has that blue dress in your size, or whether drills are still on sale at the local hardware store. (The bot will answer that and also tell you how late the store is open.)

Eventually, bots may become more proactive, letting you know that the dry cleaner is closing soon if you want to pick up your suit or that you have an hour free if you’d like to scratch that bank deposit off your to-do list.

But some onlookers predict that, assuming bots evolve to the level of sophistication that many expect, they might only serve to enhance actual human interactions, rather than replacing them outright.

“If a company were smart, it would help them use their people well,” said Mr. Stephens. “A bot will know which store the customer shops at, and will know not to just send them to a random person. So if a company has people it relies on, messaging will be a perfect fit. If they’re smart.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
Do you see chatbots transforming how retailers communicate with consumers? What appear to be the advantages and disadvantages over current customer service tools? How do you see the role of the customer service rep changing?

Braintrust
"Some businesses may see the deployment of chatbots as an opportunity to completely eliminate the role of the customer service representative."
"Behind every good chatbot is a human. The perfect chatbot seems human ... until it doesn’t."
"The Holy Grail is to combine this real-time chat capability with customer context information on the identified customers: what are her preferences, what is in her closet, purchase history and what she has browsed online."

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11 Comments on "Could chatbots redefine retail customer service?"

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Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Chatbots absolutely have a place in retail and e-commerce. However, they are really the less sophisticated cousin of artificial assistants and I think AAs have the most promise over time for businesses of any ilk.

Sure chatbots can do all the tasks described herein and more, but in these rudimentary examples, they are nothing more than automated scripted actions. They and AAs have far more potential.

There are numerous reasons why e-tailers (especially) and retailers need to be using the technology right now, particularly as a cost effective means to up their UX. Having said that though, I am not on-board with Facebook’s claims that phone interactions are on the way out and that Messenger supported by chatbots will solve small businesses’ communication/support/UX needs.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

Chatbots can help retailers communicate with consumers, provided that they don’t devolve into a cacophony of noise. To avoid that pitfall they need to be there when consumers want them, always providing useful information, and they need to be silent when not needed. Otherwise they become another app — something everyone has, but is not greatly used.

For consumers, chatbots can prove to be helpful. They speak the local language in a voice that is easy to comprehend. They can provide useful information and they can make consumers’ lives easier.

And which company, not surprisingly, has a lead in this area? Amazon.

Jerry Gelsomino
BrainTrust

Determining how to use human interactive customer service agents is the most meaningful result of using chatbots, to my way of thinking.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

As long as these chatbots do not morph into some vehicle for delivering paid advertising in the process of giving the consumer information.

Not having seen how they work, I have visions of an application that does what a customer service representative might do, except that it has the ability to access (and provide) more information faster that is relevant to the consumer.

One obvious disadvantage is the impersonal interaction. Some of us still like to talk to real people. But I guess that is why I don’t have a Facebook account.

Some businesses may see the deployment of chatbots as an opportunity to completely eliminate the role of the customer service representative. I predict that the role will be reduced but not eliminated. And for those seeking white-glove service, there will be no replacement for the human at the other end of the communication.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

There is no question that as this technology evolves, it will become more seamless in the customer experience. For now, it can be hit or miss in terms of effectiveness. The key is definitely to find the right balance between human and chatbot interactions. Customer service tends to get neutral or negative sentiments in general, and more targeting information from bots can only help the relevance of customer conversations.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

The idea of a proactive chatbot is truly scary …

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Behind every good chatbot is a human. The perfect chatbot seems human … until it doesn’t. There always has to be a human fallback. As soon as the chatbot senses the customer is confused or is not getting their answer, the human steps in (seamlessly) and saves the customer experience.

Tom Redd
Guest

The bots extend the customer service person’s reach. They can be helpful or they can be a pain. If Facebook has lots of them then they are a pain. I do not not trust Facebook so I do hope the efforts that they try fail terribly. Some day their Facebook human addicts will wake up and determine that Facebook is ruining their privacy and their lives. Most ex-users will go to Facebook Anonymous and learn the 13 Steps/Rules. Amazon and wild Jeff will go overboard with bots. They have them now but have not overloaded people with them yet.

Normal retailers will use them the right way, when most logical and when they can help the shopper or customer.

Overuse will come on fast this year — so be ready to block them.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

I believe chatbots will have a place in retail, perhaps a better version of what we currently have with the offshore chat model in place at many help desk operations.

Customer service is not service when the bot is asked a question it doesn’t understand. It becomes as annoying as automated call centers to your customers. These tools today are currently only as good as their script, and over time these will evolve to include more artificial intelligence (AI) and real-time value to both retailers and consumers.

The real opportunity to evolve the role of the customer service representative is a real-time call center approach leveraging store and home office support associates on an enterprise level using video chat capabilities for a personalized touch. To create a truly extraordinary experience without adding significant cost, retailers need to leverage the workforce across time zones, understand who is on the clock at all locations, what their skill set is as well as who is on the phone. The Holy Grail is to combine this real-time chat capability with customer context information on the identified customers: what are her preferences, what is in her closet, purchase history and what she has browsed online.

Vahe Katros
Guest
Chatbots are part of messaging applications. Messaging applications are become platforms These messaging platforms are growing in capability to such a degree that most of what someone might want to do with a business can take place within the context of a messaging application. This trend has been sparked by “over-apping” as in too many apps. This trend or development is being called “conversational commerce” It’s not just customer service, it’s the whole experience. It’s not texting, it’s the whole experience! Have you tried it yet? Here’s something that I wrote on April 5 here on RetailWire prior to the F8 conference. Since the announcement, I’ve heard Silicon Valley folks lamenting that it’s almost too late to get into this space given the hundreds of tool and bot companies that have sprung up in recent months/days. “Messaging applications are now bigger than social networks. The future user interface will be text — and don’t worry, it will have inline rich media, not just characters. And in those messages you will enter in commands to do stuff, and it’s already happening. And since retailing reflects culture, it’s worth it for you to learn more. Messaging is becoming a complete platform where companies and… Read more »
Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Consumers are much more comfortable interacting with machines and accepting AI-based responses. I use Siri on my phone to extract information without looking at the screen, including store locations and hours. Using a chatbot is the same thing except over the keyboard, so I expect it to gain acceptance in customer service situations.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Some businesses may see the deployment of chatbots as an opportunity to completely eliminate the role of the customer service representative."
"Behind every good chatbot is a human. The perfect chatbot seems human ... until it doesn’t."
"The Holy Grail is to combine this real-time chat capability with customer context information on the identified customers: what are her preferences, what is in her closet, purchase history and what she has browsed online."

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