Chatbots can help secure purchases but also ship packages. Just in time for the holidays, UPS has launched a beta version of its chatbot that will mimic human conversations to help users find shipping locations, learn shipping rates and track packages. Available through Facebook Messenger, Skype and Amazon, UPS’ release said it is different from the UPS website or mobile app in that users can use brief phrases like “shipping rates” and receive a voice response.
“We see chatbots becoming an important communication channel for our customers over the next few years, and we’re setting the stage for the incorporation of artificial intelligence throughout our customer-facing technologies,” Stuart Marcus, UPS vice president of customer technology marketing, said in a release.
Investing in a chatbot is likely useful for UPS’ functionality, especially at times of high volume, such as the holiday rush.
“Though there are many chatbot platforms out there, UPS developed their bot in-house,” said Mikhail Naumov, cofounder and president of DigitalGenius. “Clearly signaling that this is important enough for them to invest significant resources internally.”
According to the release, UPS invests more than $1 billion annually into technological advances related to functionality. UPS said it intends to integrate the bot with its My Choice platform and that artificial intelligence elements are making their way into the business’ technologies.
That said, Naumov added that it is important to remember that chatbots do not necessarily equal artificial intelligence. “In fact, there are few chatbots in recent months that actually make use of legitimate AI techniques, including machine learning and deep learning. Most are still a pre-programmed, scripted bot that recognizes your keywords and matches you with a decision tree-generated answer. The moment you don’t guess the right keyword, these systems fail.”
He said that, in the future, more chatbots will be powered with a deeper layer of learning, especially focusing on historical data to predict and automate customer service conversations. And that will take time.
Christian Brucculeri, CEO of Snaps, agreed: “The best brands consistently work to insert themselves into customers’ daily lives in convenient, innovative ways. With mobile messaging taking the lion’s share of the mobile consumer’s time and attention, it makes sense for UPS to offer tracking services on platforms like Facebook Messenger, where consumers are already spending a significant portion of their time.”
But the timing of the UPS chatbot launch is not lost on experts. With just about a month out from Christmas, there are customers to please, as well as data and packages to track.
“Many retailers and brands have invested in chatbots ahead of this holiday season and are expecting them to take on some of the load during the heavy customer service period,” said Rurik Bradbury, global head of research for LivePerson. “Chatbots are infinitely scalable and can take on basic customer service help, like providing simple information on retailer hours or answering yes/no questions.” He said that, this year, chatbots will be used as a first line of service, freeing up human agents to work on more sophisticated or qualitative questions customers may have.
And it’s not just shipping of packages, of course, this holiday. It’s what retailers can deliver at the point of sale and seeing how chatbots fit into that equation.
“Digital sales are expected to hit more than $94 billion this Christmas, pushing eCommerce past 10 percent of all holiday season sales for the first time,” said Scott Horn, CMO of 7, a CX company powered by AI. He said that, as customers are “comparison shopping” and then deciding to make purchases online, retailers need to emulate an in-store salesperson — to convert more sales — through their digital channels. And that’s where chatbots can really add value.
“The popularity of chatbots and live chat tools present a major opportunity for retailers to differentiate themselves from competitors on Black Friday,” said Horn. According to 7’s new report, “A Retailer’s Guide to Chatbots, Live Chat and Messaging,” three-quarters of consumers currently have to switch from their preferred method of interaction with a retailer to another channel to accomplish their desired tasks.
But conversion cannot be the only tell-tale sign that a chatbot is working or not.
“The most important metric should be monthly and weekly active users, which indicate a habit-forming use case for any user,” said Abhimanyu Godara, founder/CEO of personal chatbot platform Bottr.me. “If 25–30 percent of users are returning week over week, it’s typically a good indicator that a bot is solving a genuine need for users.” He said that he’s seen many examples of bots that have “a good one-off novelty factor” but not a reasonable or compelling reason to bring users back again and again.
And while some companies may think that implementing a chatbot means doing away with the human element entirely, experts say that thinking is wrong.
“When a chatbot is paired with live assistance, more complex queries can be routed to a live agent, who can benefit from seeing the context of the shopper’s previous inquiry, leading to faster resolution and all within the same interactions,” said Horn. “Millennials especially say they’re happy to engage with a chatbot as long as they can easily escalate the conversation to a live agent, with 43 percent reporting an openness to using bots.”
And maybe that pairing — human and chatbot — is successful in the long run because of who they’re judged by.
“There’s a very simple way to measure if a chatbot is successful: measure them like humans!” said Bradbury. “What some brands forget is that chatbots are judged by consumers just the same as another customer care person — they don’t get any special treatment.”
Ultimately, that boils down to customer satisfaction and return rate.
“Bots are going to be the next big touchpoint for customers looking for convenient ways to interact with retailers and brands,” said Brucculeri.
And that means not only during the holiday shopping season but also the post-holiday return season and into 2017.