In April this year, Facebook opened up its Messenger platform—which it boasts has over 900 million users—to developers, along with a set of APIs, now allowing people to build chatbots for Messenger.
Chatbots, some rudimentary, some surprisingly smart efficient, are already out there, and they will impact how we interact with businesses. We discussed the new chatbot launched by Foursquare recently on Digerati. The ways in which businesses interact with their customers has evolved rapidly in recent times. I’m ignoring a lot of overlap in the list below, and also ignoring, to some extent, how each system offers unique advantages and so on, but let me risk making a rather simplified overview anyway. Here are the various modes businesses can use to connect with their customers:
- In-person appointments and visits
- Telephone calls with long waiting times
- Email—Not instantaneous, but offers the advantage of creating a written record, a paper trail
- Chat—Needs to be human powered, has limitations in terms of round the clock availability, and impossible to scale in case of a sudden influx of requests.
- Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Just to be clear, although the list makes it look as if this is a chronological evolution that is replacing old methods with new, that is certainly not the case. Each mode of communication continues to retain its value. However, there are certainly newer use cases being discovered, for which the new modes of communication, driven by new technologies, are to a great extent responsible. For example phone and email modes are to some extent focused on troubleshooting—a customer has a specific query or a problem, and reaches out to a business to get help—rather than for conducting the primary business transaction. Of course, people do order Pizza on the phone, but that process is so full of friction points—menu needs to be queried, payment method is not integrated, the address needs to be provided, and so on—that one can consider it the exception rather than the rule.
In any case, in the context of these various methods of connecting with the customer, it is worthwhile to think about how chatbots could play a role in handling customer interactions. As a thought experiment, let us consider how Starbucks might benefit by integrating a chatbot—let’s name him Star-Bot, taking a cue from Star-Lord—into its services.
To begin with, Star-Bot would have all the essential information about you, both immediate as well as acquired over time. Immediate, current information would include your location, date and time, as well as your calendar information—flights or meetings coming up, estimated duration of the commute coming up, and so on. Information regarding your habits would induce awareness of your dietary preferences, daily routine, your favorite coffee flavors, and so on.
Additionally, the bot would also have your payment information, phone number and address, and any other information it might need to handle your requests while avoiding all points of friction in the process. Based on all this data, the bot can:
- Place an order for coffee on your behalf as you approach a Starbucks outlet.
- Correctly interpret your order based on prior experience. For instance, if your usual is a ‘Decaf Soy Latte With An Extra Shot And Cream,’ repeating it every morning to the person at Starbucks is probably a bit of a chore. And maybe a little bit embarrassing? Not that anyone is judging. But with the Star-Bot at your service, you can avoid this whole cumbersome process, and simply tell the bot to get ‘your usual’ ready. The bot will know your routine, so it knows at what outlet you will pick up your coffee, at what time, and so on. And it could even time the order fulfillment to perfection, so that your coffee is ready just as your approach the outlet. And if you rely on Starbucks for your breakfast, the Star-Bot will also keep your bagel or parfait ready.
- Suggest things you might like to try, based on your dietary preferences, and how adventurous you are inside a Starbucks: Suggestions can include information about the specials for the day, new blends available, any offers that might be running currently, and so on.
- Be aware of your social circle, and suggest meeting up with friends for coffee if they are nearby. Or if you are meeting up with a friend, you can message the bot to also coordinate with your friend (or their Star-Bot, even) and place an order for both of you accordingly.
Chatbots are not new, but it has become easier to make them smarter, more efficient, and more context aware in recent times, since these bots are now able to reside in smartphones, or on pervasive, ubiquitous social networks such as Facebook.
With the rise of social media—Facebok and Twitter in particular, the way businesses their customer service operations has changed drastically in recent years. The evolution of chatbots is the next in this evolution—a certain level of automation in the process, and a way for customers to interact with businesses using the common, standard natural language that they already know, instead of using a UI that they need to learn separately, or a complex IVR that they need to dial through painstakingly.