Chatbots

The Bots Are Coming! The Bots Are Coming!

A manual published in the late 1800s for New York City school teachers may not seem like a likely source of favored conventional wisdom. But anyone who has ever tried to teach a small child (or a large adult for that matter) something they had a hard time grasping will likely already knows its most famous adage: “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”

And while we think it is unlikely the team over at Facebook Messenger actually got their hands on said manual, it certainly seems that when it comes to chatbots, they’ve managed to absorb its most well-known lesson.

Bots launched in 2016 with a great deal of fanfare — if we had a dollar for every time someone forecasted that the bot was about to make the app obsolete, we wouldn’t be able to buy Facebook, but we probably could put in a pretty competitive offer for OnDeck.

But as F8 was getting under way, the app was still alive and well, and bots … well, things didn’t go quite as planned. The bot experience left many users, like Karen Webster, a bit cold. At best. At worst? Annoyed to the point of swearing them off for good:

“Shopping with a bot is tedious — it takes 20 exchanges to finally get a link to a just-OK pair of black pumps that you have to then go outside the bot to the retailer site to buy. Trying to book a trip on Hipmunk seems primitive to the point of being useless. After asking for the airline city code — even many experienced travelers don’t know that — the message is that it could take an hour to get a response. I tried last night to make a reservation from Boston to San Francisco, and it told me that I had presented it with a first: There were no flights between those two cities. At least that response only took a few seconds to get. Most of the time, I just want to punch Poncho the Weather Cat since all I want is the weather when I ask about the weather. Spare me the cutesy icon that tries to make a joke about it.”

The botlash was such that even Messenger head David Marcus was forced to admit that early phase of botdom has been a bit primitive — and that it was too easy to build a bad bot.

But if at first you don’t succeed, come back at F8 2017 with a big series of bot upgrades that will make bots able to interact in group chats — and create a discovery tab so consumers can search for the bots they want — and get an idea of what they are getting into when they sign in.

“Chatbots were always a means to an end, not an end,” says Stan Chudnovsky, head of product at Messenger. “Our goal was always to enable meaningful and useful conversations between people and businesses. Bots were a means to achieve that goal.”

So what does the 2.0 version of bots look like — and how will they help Messenger achieve that rather lofty goal of facilitating more meaningful and useful conversations between brands and consumers?

American Express

American Express had a bot already going into F8 but took the opportunity to roll out some updates. Within the next few months, the Amex bot will have artificial intelligence and servicing technology. The goal is to improve and up on-demand interactions to help answer account and card questions.

The newest version of the Amex bot is programmed to identify frequently asked questions by card members. Over time, the bot’s AI is designed to learn from its interactions with consumers and improve them. For examples of what types of questions the bot is ready to roll on today, American Express provided the following:

  • “What is my balance?”
  • “What is my Membership Rewards balance?” triggers a real-time Membership Rewards® points balance update.
  • “I have a question about a pending charge” provides information about different types of pending charges.

“Because of its scale, Messenger is an excellent platform to extend our conversational servicing technology to allow card members to interact with us how and when they want. We are continuing to invest in our partnership and evolve the features of our Amex bot for Messenger to deliver more value to our card members. We’re doing this by combining the real-time nature of Messenger with American Express’ rich history as a trusted service company,” American Express’ Senior Vice President of Enterprise Digital Luke Gebb said.

Aeromexico

Though a Mexico City–based airline might not be one’s first guess for innovative uses of bot technology, Aeromexico has packed a lot of function into its offering and has garnered a lot of early praise for the commerce enhancements it has designed into its bot. Working in conjunction with artificial intelligence firm IV.AI and chat developer YaloChat.com, Aeromexico claims its bot can cut customer service resolution time from 16 minutes down to two minutes. It also keeps track of flight statuses in near real time and allows customers to book tickets and manage group bookings.

Don’t know where you and your family/friends want to travel this year on vacation? No problem — the app also serves up travel recommendations.

Mastercard (Subway, Fresh Direct, Cheesecake Factory)

While most brands rolling out bot announcements were very into talking about themselves, the team at Mastercard decided to make payments an invisible part of a more worthwhile commerce experience via Masterpass.

For Subway, that means helping upgrade their Facebook chat bot to include mobile order-ahead technology — so that the conversation phase of making a sandwich can happen online — and all a customer has to do is drop in to one of Subway’s 2,000 locations and grab their food.

For Fresh Direct, Masterpass is allowing Messenger-based grocery order — and not just for individuals, but for groups. Families can now debate the relative merits of snack cakes and kale in the privacy of a Messenger group chat — and then use the bot to finalize the list and pay via Masterpass. It also lets groups of friends — who are, say, traveling together — to both group-order their groceries and then move to divide the check between them, using Facebook’s P2P payments options.

For the Cheesecake Factory, consumers can use the bot to purchase and, if desired, electronically deliver gift cards. Facebook Messenger already makes it easy to say happy birthday — now a bot is making it easier to send cake.

MoneyGram

In between sizing up bids from suitors, MoneyGram designed and debuted its Sendbot at F8. Sendbot is a platform that allows MoneyGram users in the U.S. to send money transfers to any of the company’s 350,000 global locations through Facebook Messenger.

The bot is also designed to allow users to locate physical MoneyGram locations based on where the recipient is, send funds and track transfer progress all within the text-based Messenger environment.

“Innovation is the core to our business and the MoneyGram Sendbot is a true case of a hybrid product created to bridge the digital and physical worlds in order to promote financial inclusion,” said Youri Bebic, MoneyGram’s head of product innovation. “The bot is another example of MoneyGram’s commitment to making money transfers easy for our customers.”

Rue21

Lots of bots can now help you buy, some can help you shop — but Rue21 has built its bot to be a personal stylist on the go for Messenger uses.

The apparel retailer has launched what it is call a Messenger “artist” that taps AI to deliver an interactive shopping experience. That means that shoppers can use the app to guide them through the aisles alone — or the experience can be organized as a virtual group trip: You browse the retailer’s virtual aisles by yourself or in a group and select from apparel of various sizes, colors and prices.

The app also includes image-based visual styling suggestions, color and price search filters, size personalization, and styling suggestions.

Rue’s announcement comes just a few days after it announced the closure of 400 of its 1,100 stores nationwide as it struggles to cope with falling revenue and foot traffic. The brand has vowed of late to “transform the customer experience,” and it seems as though bots will be part of that equation.

Western Union

Like their rivals over at MoneyGram, the team at Western Union announced its development of a money transfer bot for Facebook’s Messenger.

“Western Union’s global money movement platform — trusted by millions of customers worldwide — can now be accessed through the world’s largest social network platform by users in the U.S., enabling convenience, access and simplicity to further connect individuals and communities all over the world. The Messenger platform allows Western Union to interact with our U.S. customers where they are, when they need us, in the most natural conversational way,” noted Western Union’s president of global money transfer, Odilon Almeida.

Using the WU bot, Facebook users from around the world will be able to send friends and family money to over 200 countries in 130 different currencies.

So will this do it — will bots replace the app? We wouldn’t hold our breath this time — it is still in the early days. And the real bar is whether the information that bots deliver is easier to get than by popping open one’s Amex app or favorite airline app and setting alerts to have all of the information one wants pushed to their home screens.

And for that, we will have to wait and see.

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