Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Time for a Chat: Driving Commerce Results with Chat, AI, and Bots

Innovation / Mobile / Platforms / Technology

There is a scene from the movie, “That Thing You Do!” that takes place in 1950's small-town America, that really captures the ideal sales interaction. In it, the owner of an appliance store welcomes a customer who is interested in purchasing a stove. In a warm and friendly style, the salesperson greets the customer at the door and engages them, learning about what the customer's needs were. As the conversation evolves, the salesperson educates the customer as to the pros and cons of various models and price points, and enables the customer to make an informed purchasing decision. The salesperson ensures that the transaction is completed and that the customer will be successful using the new appliance, arranging for delivery and configuration as needed. Over time, the salesperson follows-up with the customer and makes sure that they are happy and productive, looking for any follow-up needs like maintenance or servicing. This model was successful because it was personal, attentive and high touch.

Small-town America has evolved significantly since then, but the concept of meeting customers, understanding their needs, educating them to make the right purchasing decision, and following up to ensure that they are successful long-term, has continued to prove its worth. The advent of technology has enabled these kinds of experiences to scale at a rate that was previously unimaginable, but it has done so at a cost: increasingly, the warmth of the experience has been lost to a cold, mechanical feeling that is devoid of the human touch.

The simple truth about humans is that we all want to interact with businesses and organizations in different ways. Some want to have an information-focused research session on their own without any involvement until they are ready to buy. When they are ready to buy, they are extremely transactional in their approach, wanting to get it done and delivered as soon as possible. Today's web technology and mobile applications are ideally suited to the "researcher" model, thanks to the information-dense world that these applications represent.

Other people prefer to discuss options and to become acquainted with the product line in a more personal manner, much like the example of small-town America in the 50's. In these cases, having the ability to discuss a customer's needs in a more conversational format would be ideal. Asking them why they visit, how they will use a product or service, and then reacting to those answers with recommendations, is a much more natural approach. Following up to close the sale transactionally, and then communicating post-sale to ensure satisfaction can still be facilitated, but like the buying process, needs to be done in a personal, conversational style.

Delivering this kind of conversational experiences can be done through chat software. Anyone who has any experience with using the web knows the experience of visiting a website and seeing a chat window appear in a corner. Clicking on the chat window starts a conversation with a customer service representative who tries to fulfill the customer's needs.

But let's be honest: today’s chat experience is just not good enough, for a number of reasons. One of the most prominent reasons it isn't more successful is that it is difficult and expensive to assign human beings with skills, experience,  and insight to manage a multitude of online requests, especially when many of the requests are not specific or relevant to sales. Many of the requests are for things that are readily available online already – store directions or hours of operation. A significant number of requests are from existing customers who have follow-up questions or other needs. Since the cost of human involvement is expensive, companies naturally try to lower costs by using remote workers and by having them manage multiple chat requests simultaneously. The resulting experience is poor for most customers and as a result, chat functions wind up damaging the brand experience rather than enhancing it.

However, there is an answer: using artificial intelligence (AI) to power online chats. AI-powered chat is a recent innovation that tackles the toughest aspects of chat and solves them with technology, delivered with a human touch. To be clear, AI-powered chat is not intended to replace human communications – quite the opposite, in fact. But it can be leveraged to filter though the mass of inbound inquiries and to ferret out the requests that are best served by humans in an expedited fashion.

To that end, AI-powered chat can be configured to answer common questions like what time you are open, how quickly an item can ship or how long the return period is. It is instantly available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. AI-powered chatbots can answer common questions about how to install and configure devices or software, which flights are available to a specific destination, what kind of filter should be purchased for your specific refrigerator and any number of other common tasks. And today's chat is powerful enough to be perceived as coming from an actual human being.

AI-powered chat has another concrete benefit: it is easily adapted and made available in channels other than just a web site. It's possible to add AI-powered chat to mobile applications and to offer it as a service for voice-enabled assistants like Amazon's Alexa. And with the explosion in popularity of messaging platforms and tools like Slack, Facebook Messenger (more than 900 million users now) and WhatsApp (over 1 Billion users worldwide), AI-powered chat functionality can be accessible in these other platforms, meeting the unique needs of customers when and where they are found.

Companies that can make investments in this kind of technology can then leverage their investment by making it available through the web, mobile applications, voice assistant technologies, and in message-specific applications and channels. It’s clear that extending this natural, conversational style through multiple channels offers the best of both worlds: the ability to instantly scale and respond to important customer requests, while making sure that actual, direct human interaction is focused on the most important kinds of transactions to the business. Companies that recognize this and take action will have more methods of differentiating themselves from their competition while reinforcing customer loyalty and driving actual results. 

Explore how Rightpoint can help your business implement AI-powered chat functionality to drive webchat, messaging opportunities and more.

Brian Browning is Vice President, Digital Experience Solutions, at Rightpoint. Follow Brian on Twitter and LinkedIn.