Hot topic: Conversational commerce

Conversational commerce: The future throwback we’ve all been waiting for

You walk into your favourite clothes store and start to browse. But you have a question about one of the shirts. Does it come in another colour? You see a store assistant, walk up to them and ask. They stare blankly back at you, saying nothing, before answering, half an hour later. Yes. You have already left the store.

This may seem like an odd way to ‘serve’ customers. But for companies who rely simply on email or a contact form as a means for consumers to contact them online, this is the experience they are realistically offering. Your website is supposed to be a virtual store front. Your customers might be able to browse products and read labels just the same as a brick and mortar experience. But where are the staff? Consumers don’t feel heard shooting off an email into the ether that may or may not get a speedy reply. If they don’t find the solutions they are looking for fast, they’ll move on to another site just as quickly.

An alternative to email

Now imagine. You are shopping with your friend, an avid shopaholic who knows both you, and the shop you are in, inside out. I’m looking for a shirt for my job interview, you say. Your friend rushes off and finds one they know you will like, judging by all the retail hours you have racked up together in the past. They come back in seconds.

How about this one? It’s in your size and it’s smart enough for an interview. It’s the kind of style that fits your personal brand. But the colour… Before you say a thing, your friend flips the shirt away to reveal another one behind it, same shirt; different colour. It’s perfect.  Yes, that one, you say. Your friend smiles, and whisks away the shirt to the check-out for you. All you have to do is tap your card at the point of sale. Voila. It’s already wrapped up and being delivered to your front door.

The whole process took just minutes. Why is it being delivered? Because you did all this without ever stepping foot outside. In fact, you didn’t even have to venture outside a single app.

And your friend, was actually a chat bot. Welcome to conversational commerce.

A throwback to the future

If the whole scene feels faintly familiar, it’s because this is the kind of interaction we’ve been promised for years. From a computer interface that can produce nearly everything in Star Trek, to a buddy to give advice and solve problems in Knight Rider. The virtual assistant you can casually converse with has been a long time coming in the human imagination. But whereas your Siri, your Alexa and your OK Google will give rather sarcastic or dad-joke replies if you actually ask them to do something useful for you, like, make you a sandwich (poof, you’re a sandwich), a quick chat with Subway in Facebook’s Messenger app today in the US will actually order a sandwich for you, within seconds.

Likewise, you can save money more effectively with a chinwag with your AI pal Cleo. The chat app gives you insights into your spending and saving habits, along with some choice emojis. Or you can reserve and pay for a room and even request an extra pillow at the Hyatt nearest to your cousin’s wedding, in a city you don’t know, on the 15th of this month, without ever opening a single browser tab. Facebook Messenger, RCS and other chat apps like it are fast becoming the quickest and most intuitive way to research and purchase online. Why are consumers taking to conversational commerce so easily?

Phonecall-less phones

It will surprise few people that in 2018, making phone calls rarely ranks in the top ten use of a mobile phone. Phone calls can be clunky and awkward, without any visual cues we are used to in conversation. And when it comes to businesses and phone calls, consumers are plagued by nightmarish bass-heavy hold music and endless menus to choose from before getting through to the relevant department. Meanwhile businesses are left to foot the pricey bill of that poor customer interaction – a lose/lose all round.

Email is not much better at being efficient. In fact, it’s far worse. With average response times being up to 23 hours. Not to mention it still has a lot of formal hang-ups of sign-offs and signatures and that can be off-putting to consumers who crave conversational commerce. They want more casual and genuine interaction, even if it is from an artificial intelligent bot.

Where messaging apps or web chat on a company’s site hit the mark, is the no pressure interaction of text (giving the reader a chance to process the information in their own time) combined with the instantaneous response. Even if a company is using real employees to respond, the customer still gets the comfort of the three dot ghost, hovering in reassurance that their query has been heard. That someone, somewhere, is working on an answer.

Tailor-made for mobile

We’ve been a mobile-first society for years. But the conversion rate for selling on mobile sites doesn’t seem to correlate with our browsing habits. People may start their search for a product on their phone, but ultimately, more often than not, they finish the transaction on a larger display. All that width and depth of a website just doesn’t translate to a user-friendly interface on the narrow screen of a phone. No matter how much we ‘optimise’ sites for mobile, we can’t escape the fact that ultimately, they were made for desktops.

But messaging apps that host conversational commerce are the sage natives of the land of mobile. They were born in phones. They speak the intuitive language of generations who see phones as integral to leaving the house as keys. Messaging apps have evolved with the phone. Consumer habits have both shaped and molded them. Gradual integrations to messaging apps of things like the GIF keyboard, Google Calendar, Uber, polls and payment portals have not only been in response to the way people are using their phones, but it has also primed them for the gradual integration of businesses to their most social of apps. Conversational commerce therefore hasn’t taken a lot of getting used to.

Personal touch

With the convenience and the built-in familiarity of conversational commerce, is it really any wonder that consumers are easily sold on the idea of making purchases from a messaging app? While it may be revolutionary for businesses, for consumers, it doesn’t really feel like that much of a radical step. It’s more like another helpful add-on, or something that was frankly expected years ago. What’s more, it’s giving people that much more personal experience.

It used to be a luxury to have a personal shopper. Conversational commerce, however, now allows consumers to message your business in a chat application immediately, offering a tailored experience. After all, we used to think customers wanted choice – the more, the better. But anyone who has tried to order a coffee in the last decade will know what we really want is for someone to narrow down our options. We want to cut through the white noise of all the stuff that’s irrelevant to our needs. Or more, we want someone to do this for us without us having to ask. Don’t offer a vegan whipped cream. Don’t try and sell hibiscus green tea to the coffee connoisseur. And certainly don’t make your customers repeat their preferences just because your system fails to log them.

To bot? Or not to bot?

For some companies, chat bots are the answer to 24/7 care and sales for their customers. For others, the product or service that they offer may simply be too nuanced and complex for a chat bot to be programmed. In this case, having a team of employees adopting omnichannel approach (either through our One API or our SaaS tool, Contact) still provides the perfect solution to communication with consumers with conversational commerce in mind. Real workers or bots log consumer habits and preferences, to better serve the needs of the consumer.

Finally, conversational commerce fulfills that luxury, seamless, futuristic experience customers have been craving since the 80’s. But these click-happy customers will only grace the virtual doorsteps of companies who embrace conversational commerce, so don’t expect an email from them any time soon.

See also: Omnichannel and the customer experience 

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