Originally published in The Indian Economist
Our global society is entering an era of conversational commerce. We need to start paying attention to who we will be having these conversations with, as any different direction can have sweeping ramifications.
Conversational commerce, a term coined by Uber’s Chris Messina, refers to how transactions are increasingly started and completed through chat interfaces, such as messaging apps and voice-triggered assistants. This is a radical shift from how digitally driven transactions have occurred over the past 20 years.
The Future of Commerce
Instead of selling products through one’s own destination (like a website) or a destination hosted by another retailer, conversational commerce promises to bring the consumer into a dialogue with the seller. The conversation right now primarily happens by interacting with a seller’s dedicated account within the chat service – such as interacting with Domino’s Pizza account on Facebook Messenger or Amazon Echo. Going forward, commerce will be more seamlessly integrated into chat services, such as when two friends are talking about what they want for dinner and bring up the pizza bot within the conversation. This is already happening with Apple’s Messages app, as well as on Facebook with the integration of Uber and Lyft.
When the bots appear within personal conversations, then people stay connected with each other, which is seen as a positive development. What gets lost, however, is how we interact with the sellers.
In the US, there’s a romanticized notion of the General Store, which was widespread in the 19th century. Shoppers purchased a range of goods largely on credit thanks to the trust that they had with the shopkeeper. That notion became quainter by the year and now consumers get frustrated when they need to speak with someone on the phone to order a meal, as the process can happen through a faceless app or a website. The best part is that the app almost always understands what the buyer wants, and the order fulfilment is perfect, with an occasional exception of someone at a restaurant mixing up an order. This human error is practically the only thing reminding us that human beings were involved in the process at all.
As more sellers embrace chatbots, human interaction is further removed from the transaction. What’s strange, however, is how it can feel like one is interacting with another person. It’s not uncommon for people to type phrases like “Hello,” “How are you?” and even “I love you” into chatbots, partially to see what happens but partially because it feels very natural to interact this way. There is a process of self-delusion at work too. Bots don’t need to pass a Turing test to convince people that they are human when people are willing to anthropomorphize even relatively simple bots.
Consequences of Conversational Commerce
As conversational commerce rises through automated bots, this can have profound effects on call centres, and become a lightning rod of an issue in countries like India and the Philippines that employ hundreds of thousands of call centre workers. Consumers are going to be trained to check for bots first before calling retailers and brands, or even before visiting their sites. The bots will require fewer humans manning them as responses will be automated to common queries.
Within a couple of days this month, for example, I had three situations where I needed technical support, and I used three different chat services. In all of those cases, I chatted with live human beings who solved my problems, but all of those problems were fairly straightforward and could easily have been remedied by an automated bot. Additionally, one of those companies overlooked a simple step that required me to seek their assistance again the next day; bots would be trained not to make such errors. Bots can also accomplish tasks that no human could, such as pushing out mass personalized messages at scale.
What could tilt trends in an opposing direction is that websites and apps are faceless, beyond chats with customer service. There is typically no human interaction when shopping for a pair of shoes or figuring out which hotel to book. Conversational commerce creates opportunities for sellers’ staff to become part of the process and offer recommendations or ask questions that will ultimately increase conversions while helping buyers make more satisfying decisions. When engaging with chatbots, efficiency is still important, but so is a proper conversation stream.
In time, some sellers may promote that their chatbots are manned by real human beings offering live support. It will be the impetus, with higher costs for the sellers contributing to a goal of higher conversions. People may even recommend such bots to their friends. After all, if one gets a compliment on a pair of shoes, it’s nicer to say, “Jenny from Zappos recommended them” than, “A chatbot recommended them.”
Either human beings from the seller side will need to play a role in conversational commerce, or the entire aspect of such commerce being conversational will prove to be a misnomer.
Wikipedia defines “conversation” as “a form of interactive, spontaneous communication between two or more people.” Either human beings from the seller side will need to play a role in conversational commerce, or the entire aspect of such commerce being conversational will prove to be a misnomer. Soon, that definition of conversation may seem as quaint as a General Store.