The insights CIOs can gain by leveraging conversational commerce

Providing a hands-on customer service experience is the key to commerce. Here's why.

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AI-driven chatbots have arrived. Sure, there are the kitschy examples: Xiaolce, the Chinese chatbot whose first words reporting the weather on a Shanghai TV station were, “I’m happy to start my new work on the winter solstice.” But there are also machine learning programs like one from Google that writes its own piano songs; or IBM’s Watson that is able to deliver life-saving medical diagnoses in under 10 minutes.

These are just a few ways A.I.-driven chatbots are excelling at human capabilities, but there are hundreds of thousands of much more practical applications of machine learning that each industry is using to evolve.

In e-commerce, even the most sophisticated retail brands are still struggling to make the digital shopping experience mirror that of face-to-face interaction. Sure, online shopping is convenient and can be more affordable, but as shopping has moved online, the person to person experience has disintegrated. Online merchants have found it difficult to make shoppers feel welcome or create a connection that will resonate with them once they’ve left.

But we are getting there. By building trust, engaging with digitally native generations, understanding customer needs, and analyzing their behaviors, e-commerce is becoming so sophisticated that the sole purpose of brick-and-mortar stores could soon just be brand showrooms, a la Tesla. In fact, the direct sales model (meaning channels other than physical stores) is so important to Tesla that Tesla General Counsel Todd Maron has said it is “crucial to the company’s viability.”

One way merchants are engaging consumers in this direct-to-consumer landscape is by leveraging vendors that excel in Conversational Commerce. Starbucks, for example, says its heavy focus on technology is enabling it to embrace Conversational Commerce “very rapidly”, allowing consumers to order coffee at home or in their car using smart devices such as Amazon Echo.

Gerri Martin-Flickinger, Starbucks CTO, spoke about how the ways in which consumers are interacting with technology is radically changing. While young people currently “use one finger and point and click” to order, she predicts the next generation “won’t even do that” – and will use their voices instead.

Conversational Commerce allows retailers to unlock the full potential of brand-to-consumer interactions and weave together all visual image cues, natural language search, dynamic recommendations, and intuitive analytics.

Humanize digital experiences

Online users are increasingly testing the limits of e-commerce search, and are most often disappointed by the results. If you were in front of a store associate, the likelihood of miscommunication is dramatically less. There are natural cues that are demonstrated when talking in person, and brands are clawing to make this a reality through their virtual stores.

“Search engines must intelligently understand explicit and implicit cues from the user,” explains Akash Bhatia, CEO of Infinite Analytics, an A.I. platform for e-commerce. “Explicit cues such as the product, style and fit. Or that ‘indigo’ is a certain shade of blue, not a brand name, and that the user may have set a price limit. Implicit cues such as the gender of the user, preferred brands, size, and shopping style must also be considered by the machine search agent, just as they would by a human salesperson.”

In conversational commerce, this natural language search is a must-have. If consumers aren’t able to quickly execute a search that derives relevant results, there are likely hundreds of competitors they can jump to.

Chat with bots

Now that chatbots have become commonplace, without them, conversational commerce falls flat. Customer service is the most important factor to success, and bots allow for a customer service cycle that never sleeps.

According to Chatbots Magazine, people prefer to receive information about the brands while they’re shopping. A chatbot is an interactive and engaging way to cut down the shopping time and reduces the time and resources a company needs to invest in customer service.

There are an incredible number of applications for chatbots, and many of them have yet to be realized. By 2025, 12.7 million jobs will be created to build and train robots and automated software.

Kik spokesman, Rod McLeod, recently explained to The Washington Post that when shoppers engage with a bot, they are almost by definition in a different frame of mind than someone who simply sees a retailer’s display ad on a website.

“The user has to opt into the conversation. So that’s kind of an interest indicator from the get-go,” McLeod says.

Tie it all together with marketing

Conversational Commerce should be leveraged throughout the customer journey, including how to re-market customers. A.I. is helping the marketing arm of e-commerce companies to create highly targeted campaigns.

For example, messaging apps are a useful marketing tool. SMS and apps work to engage the shopper throughout their experiences from search to product purchase. Experts say that if online brands don’t realize the value in all the data collected throughout channels like messaging apps or chatbots and use it for personalization, the client is likely to jump to a competitor.

“These days, everyone has access to data, so now it becomes how to garner insights from that data that can convert one-time customers into returning clients,” says Bhatia. “It’s like having a rough diamond – anyone can have a rough diamond, but the value comes from how the diamond is cut, polished and finished. That is how retailers need to look at how they’re using the data they have access to.”

At the speed of technology, Conversational Commerce is sure to become more sophisticated. Online businesses must keep it a top priority to find ways and means to get the consumer’s increasingly short attention span and effect a conversion for an on-the-go economy.

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