In the US, retailers are turning to chatbots to talk directly with customers, heralding a technology that could be on the verge of transforming fashion retailers’ online customer services.
As the Pokémon Go craze sweeps the world, pointing to a future in which augmented reality changes the way people interact with technology, a quieter revolution is under way in retail: the advance of artificial intelligence (AI). AI is tipped to help retailers transform the customer experience with computer programs that perform automated tasks increasingly allowing American retailers, such as ecommerce site Spring, to “chat” with customers.
A report by social media agency Myclever points to two types of ”bot” that could find favour among fashion retailers: chatbots, which use instant messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger, to answer queries; and commerce bots, which allow customers to browse and buy products without having to leave their messenger window.
H&M is among the first retailers to introduce commerce bots on messaging platform Kik. American customers can chat to the bot about their style preferences using multiple-choice answers, and are sent outfit and product suggestions in return. To buy a product, customers then simply tap on an item and are taken to H&M’s mobile site.
“Bots can sit in a customer service setting or they can help retailers inspire more purchases by showing off new products,” says Charley Caines, head of content production at Myclever. “They can learn about customer preferences and if they’re used on platforms such as Facebook, they already have access to a lot of data about customers.”
Most retailers could do with an extra pair of hands, virtual or otherwise, to help deal with customers’ questions online. Asos, Boohoo and Oasis are among those that have set up separate “help” Twitter accounts to handle queries from customers who are often impatient – in a Myclever survey, just 17% were willing to wait more than 24 hours for a response over social media.
Myclever asked consumers what frustrations they had experienced with online services: 46% said that sites do not provide basic details, such as store opening hours, and 40% said they could not find answers to simple questions. Bots seem more than capable of handling these straightforward queries. However, many of the questions directed to retailers over social media occur when something goes wrong, such as a missing order or poor customer service.
Can bots really help retailers manage these kinds of queries? Caines argues that they can: “Bots can help retailers in situations where they have an influx of queries about the same subject – if a delivery truck goes missing, for example. When retailers are being bombarded with the same message over and over again, bots can take out some of the menial legwork.
“As the AI improves, bots will be able to gather information coming at retailers from the various social media channels and share it across the customer service team, helping the human teams to run more efficiently.”
Customers prefer to ‘ask’ rather than finding the answer themselves
Luca Marini, founder and COO of Finery London
Luca Marini, founder and chief operating officer of womenswear brand Finery London, also believes that chatbots are the future of consumer engagement.
“More than 50% of customer queries are fairly basic, such as ‘where is my order?’ or ‘where is my return?’, and customers prefer to ‘ask’ rather than finding the answer themselves, or browsing through endless FAQs. As AI technology advances, chatbots will be able to seek, synthesise and communicate in the same ways humans do, although I don’t think they will ever fully replace humans.”
He added: “If retailers have any doubts, they should look at how much Apple’s [voice-activated assistant] Siri has improved as each new version [of iPhone platform iOS] is released.”
H&M chatbot dialogue
H&M chatbot dialogue
Some retailers do have doubts about using machines to communicate with their customers: the technology has yet to be perfected, prompting some high-profile gaffes. Asos Australia attracted unwelcome press earlier this year when what was suspected to be a bot posted a series of -cutter responses to comments on a customer’s complaint on Facebook. Users suspected responses were computer generated after Asos replied to comments that were not about missing or delayed orders by asking for order numbers and customer details.
Microsoft’s bot, Tay, also came under fire after it started posting racist and sexist tweets. Tay was designed to “learn” from direct messages sent by Twitter users, but was sabotaged by internet trolls who sent it offensive messages, eventually leading to the program being taken offline.
Claire Hill, customer services director at Boohoo, warns that retailers using chatbots run the risk of alienating customers: “Customer loyalty is a hard win in retail and we feel bots are a step too far at the moment. When someone sends us a direct message on Twitter with a query, to us, it feels like an unwritten agreement that their question will be dealt with by a human. Otherwise, you lose the personal touch and risk sounding disingenuous. If you try and automate a response, it can open a can of worms.”
Hill adds that although she can see a place for chatbots in the future, for now, the technology is still at the bleeding edge.
She says: “Chatbots could be a starting point for interaction between brands and customers, but I would much rather be upfront and transparent. Customers need to know who they’re talking to and be able to opt out of talking to a bot if they want. If we tried the technology now, it could fail. Yes, a bot can learn, but we don’t necessarily want to be the ones teaching it.”
I think it would be a mistake not to tell customers they’re not talking to a human
Kieran O’Neill, CEO and co-founder of Thread
Customers need to know who – or what – they’re talking to, agrees Kieran O’Neill, CEO and co-founder of online men’s styling service Thread.
“We’re a long way away from having bots so good that you can’t tell you’re speaking to one, and I think it would be a mistake not to tell customers they’re not talking to a human,” he says. “It’s about being transparent and not eroding the trust between you and your customers.”
Although Myclever’s Caines acknowledges that teething problems are part and parcel of any new technology, she argues issues can be diminished if retailers tell customers how to use chatbots properly. Indeed, it appears that customers may not have unrealistic expectations of what bots can achieve. Myclever found that the most anticipated benefits of using bots were having a 24-hour service (68% of survey respodents) and getting quick answers to simple questions (64%). Only 14% expected detailed or expert answers, and fewer than one in 10 (9%) would look to bots for “friendliness and approachability”.
“The level of complexity a bot can handle will depend on how well it has been built,” says Caines. “The really fascinating thing about them is that they are learning and evolving. However, sometimes they rely on customers using specific phrases or words. Retailers must market to consumers about how to use bots properly.”
If retailers do decide that bots could be an effective way of talking to customers, they would also need to consider the best way of reaching them. Chatbots can be used on a wide range of platforms, from a retailer’s own mobile app or website to a whole host of messaging apps.
“Our early thinking is that our own app could be stronger for interacting with existing customers and creating a personalised experience for them, while third-party apps could be useful for attracting new customers,” says Paul Hornby, ecommerce director at Shop Direct.
“We’re looking carefully at this and other disruptive technology to identify the opportunities that will make our customer journey simpler.”
For other retailers, the real advantages of bots lie in improving back-of-house operations, rather than customer service. Rob Feldmann, CEO of flash Sale site BrandAlley, says he hopes computer programs will help his company to buy and price more intelligently in the near future.
“Some sectors are using machines to write responses, but I’m not sure that’s the future for bots,” he says. “If, for example, a bot could look at your accessories range and tell you what customers looked at online, how many customers bought the product and the price points that triggered the purchase, it could give you a much clearer idea of what you need for each category when you’re planning your range. If you could use this knowledge and then factor in what you’re seeing in the market, it should lead to smarter buying.”
He adds: “Bots could be revolutionary for pureplay brands and retailers. The technology isn’t there yet, but it’s something all of our tech partners are working on and I think we’re only a year or two away.”
Bots do have the potential to help retailers in a number of ways, from behind the scenes to handling customer requests. But according to Rachel Barton, managing director of advanced customer strategy at technology consultancy Accenture, it is still early days for the technology.
“There are certainly advantages to using chatbots, but they do need to evolve to give consumers the authentic experiences they demand,” she says. “Almost 80% of UK consumers prefer dealing with human beings over digital channels to solve customer service issues and get advice. Organisations that want to keep their customers happy should avoid losing sight of the importance of a human touch.”