Chatbots can now fly you around the world. This week, Lufthansa’s chatbot named Mildred took flight with capabilities of helping flyers search for cheap flights and book tickets using natural language processing through Wit.ai. Mildred will recognize your requests in both English and German and will employ the Google geolocation database for tourist attractions around destinations.
Some experts say this is “wheels up” for chatbots and the airline industry. And in fact, Lufthansa is ahead of the game compared to its peer airline companies.
“It’s understandable that airlines are generally averse to chatbots — many of their customers need instant help with complex issues, and there are some things chatbots are not equipped to solve quite yet,” said Vivian Rosenthal, founder of Snaps. “For those more complex issues, we encourage airlines to have real people available to answer questions over Messenger. Passengers should be able to easily chat with airlines one on one.”
That said, Rosenthal said there are common problems that chatbots built by airlines can easily solve for their passengers, like checking in, booking new flights and real-time status updates from the airlines directly. “This bot is focused on top of the funnel — helping people book airline tickets — which feels like something a user could do on an app or website.”
But then, it begs the question if humans really need chatbots for airline travel.
“We are moving from desktop, to mobile, to messaging. Chatbots are the next evolution to augment and help people book travel in the place where they already spend most of their time: in messaging applications,” said Rosenthal. “Chatbots can also be ‘smart,’ which makes them more useful than a website. For example, bots can remember things like the user’s seat preference (aisle versus window) and that a user prefers to fly out of JFK.”
Experts, like Rurik Bradbury, global head of research at LivePerson, said it, however, depends on the chatbot use case.
“Bots can certainly be useful as a middle ground between an automated app and a fully manual human conversation. For example, they might be helpful in building complex queries for a trip, with variable dates and flight options,” said Bradbury. “However, in those cases, a human is typically better in terms of customer satisfaction, as humans make fewer mistakes and have fewer misunderstandings of the consumer’s intent.”
That said, looking ahead, will chatbots render certain businesses and positions — like travel agents — obsolete? There are already new travel solutions coming out of chatbot hackathons.
“One idea for the travel industry would be to mash up a bot with a booking app that puts the rich controls (sliders, selectors, visual grids) inside the chatbot stream,” said Bradbury. “This gets around the downside of bots, which is that they involve a lot of text entry, which is harder work than pressing buttons on a built-to-purpose UI, like the travel booking smartphone apps people are already familiar with.”
So, indeed, the technology is slated to advance.
In fact, Facebook has mounted increased efforts to grow its Messenger platform for bots. There are currently more than 34,000 bots interacting with consumers through the platform. On top all those chatbots — which, if you think about it, could fill Chicago’s Wrigley Field or Boston’s Fenway Park — Facebook is now allowing developers to track bots through a free analytics program similar to how the same group tracks advertisements and apps, and at the same time, it is granting developers access to its FbStart program.
Clearly, there is some success here in the developing chatbot world. Perhaps some companies are getting into the game to keep up, despite not yet perceiving and receiving the success that chatbots are slated to pull in.
But experts say there are some chatbots to emulate and learn from.
Rosenthal gave the example of Burberry’s chatbot, which showcased the newest runway pieces at London’s Fashion Week.
“Fashion aficionados could watch the show live and learn more about the collection. Most interesting — at least from a content perspective — is the ‘maze,’” said Rosenthal. “Within the chat, the bot gave people a choice through guided reply interactions to navigate a bot maze and find images of the new fashion collection along the way. Finally, customers could shop the look, and there were plenty of opportunities to buy.”
But even with Burberry’s strategy-focused bot, experts say they have yet to point to the perfect chatbot.
“I believe we’re in just the second inning of chatbots,” said Bradbury. “We’ve seen experiments across all industries, and I don’t see one with a ‘shortage’ of bot. If anything, the tech industry has a ‘surplus.’”
He said the real issue may be about quality, as chatbots may need to be rethought to focus on pain points, as opposed to being general-purpose experiments that struggle to be “good enough” for users. And until then, he said, “we won’t see mass adoption.”
In the meantime, depending on which airline you’re booking on, you could be speaking with a chatbot or repeating, “Agent … Representative … Help … Operator…,” until you reach a human.