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.
More than 50 million companies worldwide already operate across the Facebook platform, sending over 1 billion business messages every month. With the addition of chatbot capabilities, Messenger app users may now order flowers by chatting with 1-800-Flowers’ Facebook account thanks to bots developed by Assist, a bot messaging startup co-founded by Robert Stephens, who previously founded tech support firm Geek Squad. Facebook users may also communicate with a personal shopper bot by messaging with mobile shopping app Spring, and interact with a range of other brands including eBay, Staples, Shopify, CNN and Salesforce.
Facebook contends that chatbots will usher in a new era of communications with customers. Several experts echoed that enthusiasm, and say they'll be easy for retailers of all sizes to implement. "It’s the beginning of the end of sitting on hold, the beginning of the end of 'Press one for this press to two for that,' the beginning of the end of 'This call may be recorded for quality purposes,'" Stephens told Retail Dive.
But some onlookers caution that even once bots evolve to the level of sophistication that many expect, they might only serve to enhance actual human interactions, rather than replacing them outright.
"It’s not going to take very long for customers to realize how great it is for them," Stephens said. "If a company were smart, it would help them use their people well. One of the keys for a physical retailer is being able to say 'We can do what you want' or 'We can find it.' 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."
The beauty of bots
Bots are essentially descendents of a "chatterbot" program developed in 1964 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Joseph Weizenbaum, who developed a program he dubbed ELIZA to mimic a therapist, asking open-ended questions and even responding with follow-ups.
For a while there, virtual assistants like Apple's Siri, Google's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana seemed the wave of the future, but more than half a century after Weizenbaum's innovations, the tech world has come around to his way of thinking.
"Messaging is going to be the interface—or the anti-interface—of the next phase of the internet," Robin Chan, CEO of Operator, an app that uses a mix of artificial intelligence and human workers to let you shop through text-based conversations, told The Verge. "This is such a mega-trend that almost every large application is moving toward this."
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, Stephens says.
“Right now you have to install an app. The idea of messaging is much easier than an app,” he said. “It’s going to change companies and change consumer behavior. It’s nice to have somebody ‘like’ your Facebook page, but what does it mean, really? We did everything we were told 10 years ago. We went on social media. We went after ‘likes’ and ‘hearts,’ and what did we get for that? And the great thing is the cost to develop a bot is much less than to develop an app.”
The infeasibility of individual brand and retail apps is well documented. In its 2015 report "The Future Of Mobile Wallets Lies Beyond Payments," Forrester Research said that mobile wallets and even messaging would be useful for reaching customers beyond payments, and that individual apps would be unlikely to catch on.
“No matter how good your own app is, the reality is that only a small subset of your customer base will use it,” author Thomas Husson said in that report. "Consumers spend the majority of their time on just a few mobile apps and, increasingly, on new audience portals like messaging and social media apps."
Indeed, the average person spends 80% of their time on mobile using just three apps, and of those three, their preferred messaging app ranks among them, according to ComScore.
The problem doesn't just apply to mobile payments or purchases, but also to digital interactions in general, says Jason Goldberg, who leads commerce and content strategy at interactive digital agency Razorfish (and who also blogs as “Retailgeek”).
“All these brands have written apps, and no one uses those apps,” Goldberg told Retail Dive. “The bots don’t require any installation, so a lot of people, myself included, feel the bot is the new app. And unlike the apps, the bots all run on these open platforms," meaning developers can design bots that can be used on Google, Facebook or any messaging service with a "bot store."
The state of bots
While it's still early for bots, momentum is growing rapidly. Even before Facebook's Messenger unveiling, retailers Sephora and H&M announced bots optimized for popular messaging app Kik, whose Bot Store has 14 other bots, including comedy web channel Funny or Die and the Weather Channel. And in China, bots caught on long ago, though Goldberg notes that they rely on stilted syntax and not the smoother "conversational" communication that retailers here are after.
Some technological vulnerabilities have already emerged in the U.S. as well. Microsoft’s artificial intelligence bot Tay, for example, debuted last month and was quickly (and seemingly easily) “taught” by Twitter users to be a racist, sexist troll. A re-introduction a few days later, based on improvements Microsoft made to Tay’s machine learning, didn’t go much better.
Even more applicable to the messaging bots introduced by Facebook, Washington Post reporter Sarah Halzack tweeted about H&M’s Kik bot’s cheery option of choosing “teenager / college student / 20s / 30s / other": "I tried H&M's shopping bot. And I'll be honest, these age options didn't make me feel young.”
That’s a problem.
“Retailers should proceed with caution before replacing their helpful live customer service agents who answer phone calls and chats manually with bots,” Chris Luo, vice president of marketing at customer loyalty platform FiveStars and Facebook’s former head of global small and medium business marketing, told Retail Dive in an email. “Just as we saw early challenges with [interactive voice response] systems on the phone, early attempts at creating bots will be frustrating. But things will get better. There will probably be multiple experiments with using bots instead of humans, and some will succeed and some won’t.”
The future of bots
Paul Johns, chief marketing officer at social customer service platform Conversocial, says that retailers and brands should hesitate to cede to messaging bots any customer service responsibilities that require the warmth and dignity of human interaction. Rather, bots should be reserved for more menial tasks that free up live associates for important communications with customers.
“There’s a lot of product parity right now, and the barriers of defense involve communication,” Johns told Retail Dive. “Think of the old days of brick-and-mortar, when proximity was the differentiator—those days are gone. Now the customer experience is the great differentiator. Do you want to engage in the same conversations that all your competitors have? Your employees’ interactions with your customers is an expression of your personality as a brand, and that personality really comes through. It’s never going to happen in a chatbot.”
Luo agrees. “Retailers should measure customer satisfaction closely, and only implement bots if they are confident customer experience can be preserved or enhanced,” he said. “Especially if retailers believe that customer service is a core part of their brand strategy, I would be careful before rolling out bots. An interim solution that we will see is bots working alongside live customer service agents. Perhaps a conversation will start with a bot but it could transition quickly to human beings after basic information is gathered. This will reduce handle time and cost for service departments while still preserving the great customer experiences that happen when you talk to real human beings.”
Bots are instead more likely to evolve the retail environment in ways that benefit retailers and consumers alike. Stephens and Goldberg both say that eventually bots will be using 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. If you’ve noticed Google Maps letting you know that traffic is heavy and that you’ll need more time to get home, even without being asked, you’ve had a taste of that future, Goldberg says.
But as long as retail customers are people with emotions, passions, needs and desires, other people will remain integral to retail success in the end. And that's been true of technology all along, says Brett Wickard, founder and president of “lean retail” software solutions firm FieldStack.
“While it remains to be seen how fluid and effective Facebook’s chatbot technology currently is, over time, tools like this will prove to be transformative,” Wickard told Retail Dive in an email. “Automating and modernizing customer service is critical for all retailers. And those who have modern systems that allow a unified commerce experience will be able to rapidly employ and benefit from services like chatbots. These new avenues for service allow new areas for competition to serve the customer and enable employees. People have been designing and utilizing more and more sophisticated tools since the beginning of time. Even yesterday’s technology amplifies people.”