Everything around us is getting automated. And everything around us seems to be getting intuitive day-by-day. The automated keyboard knows the words we wish to type, the portal we are shopping at shows us exactly what we need of course, food apps send us messages offering discounts just when we are hungry! With so much happening in the realm of tech, the evolution of ChatBots isn’t really a surprising event then. Retail ChatBots let the brands and retailers literally be where their customers are 24×7 – on a messaging app! Here is a look at ChatBots and their relevance to Indian retail.
Where online retailers, especially those that cater to niche segments, are seeing ChatBots as an essential part of their operations, major traditional retailers are yet to make use of this technology. Some of them do not use artificial intelligence but have a customer care executive address consumer queries, which in a way adds more of a human touch to the process of selling.
Internationally the names that are creating a ripple in their use of ChatBots in an exceptionally fantastic way are H&M, Tacos, Tommy Hilfiger (specially to guide their customers of the return and exchange of goods), Sephora and Burberry.
What are ChatBots?
A ChatBot is a computer programme that can initiate, hold and conclude a conversation with the customer on his chosen device (smartphone, tablet or laptop). They are designed to stimulate a conversation with the buyer and address his queries and concerns. A lot of ‘app only’ and online platforms use ChatBots to boost their customer service as well as business. No sooner does the customer log on to an e-commerce site, a window pops up with a message – “Hi, I am available to answer all queries”.
Many brands in India are doing their version of a ChatBot – an option to chat with a live customer representative during working hours. Having said that, there are Indian retail players who are warming up to the idea of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and ChatBots, especially the online kind.
Senior Vice-President, Offline Marketing, CaratLane, Atul Sinha, “Being a technology-oriented company, we like to adopt new ways of customer interaction with the brand using technology. So far, we have started building a ChatBot prototype internally. However, we have not gone live with the implementation yet. Chatting with a human agent on the other side of the brand is already an accepted behaviour. ChatBots do not change this behaviour. It is just that the system responds behind the scenes, instead of humans. I believe this will be the future of chatting with the brand anytime, anyplace.”
Elaborating on the use of ChatBots at CaratLane for internal purpose, he adds, “At CaratLane, we use the ‘Amber’ ChatBot tool for Employee Engagement. Amber helps us monitor the mood of the employees in the organization at various stages of their tenure for e.g. at three months, then nine months, one year, then two years and so on. This AI tool reads employee responses, helps understand employees at risk and then suggests corrective actions. The tool also helps record suggestions and ideas to remain connected with the employees.”
ChatBots & Retail
Having someone address a customer query online is akin to having the customer talking to a shop floor assistant. ChatBots in retail can benefit the brand bridge the gap between first a customer’s choice and then the decision to buy the item. In fact, it is interesting to note that even while when a customer is at the store, especially to buy home appliances and electronics, they are more comfortable having a look at the product feature on their phone and possibly read a review or two before closing on their buying decision. Here is where ChatBots can come handy.
A brand which uses a ChatBot can easily tap shoppers and provide them with every possible detail they need. On the other hand, a shop floor assistant may or may not be comfortable articulating all the possible technical specifications of the product. ChatBots use crisp information and the information is provided at once. Also, the inbuilt system of asking consumers what they need and the ‘ready-to-help’ programme of ChatBots makes customers feel connected with the brand instantly.
What can ChatBots Achieve?
– Make the shopper feel welcomed
– Initiate a conversation and have the shopper share his queries / concerns
– Guide him through the brand
– Provide personal assistance
– Provide recommendations
– Give updates
– Process order
Chief Information Officer, Infiniti Retail, Ranjit Satyanath states, “This is an interesting space and BoTs can take significant load off humans when it comes to answering mundane queries like store location, product price, return policy etc.”
He, however, is quick to add that the jury is still not out on whether people are actually using BoT technology to respond to sophisticated queries like product comparisons. Elaborating on this, he says, “Both are part of the customer journey and important from the buyer’s point of view. Investments in these technologies will largely depend upon technology maturity, ease of deployment and the risk appetite of the retailer.”
To hear it from a company that has implemented ChatBots, Chief Technology Officer, Globus Stores Pvt. Ltd., Pooran Jaiswal says, “Globus is already doing a POC with ChatsBots in selected cities with a selected group of consumers to understand whether they really meet customer expectations. So far, the results have been 50-50 in terms of understanding the Indian customer’s moods. I’m sure we will be able to fine-tune our ChatBot and launch it in a full-fledged manner for all our customers.”
According to him, ChatBots are still at a novice stage, where-in only new-age customers – the young generation (age below 25) – are trying and buying using them. He adds, “I am sure slowly it will spread to other age groups too.”
For a consumer brand that otherwise cannot interact with its patrons directly, a ChatBot on their website is a perfect way to make them believe that the brand cares for them and is serious about addressing their questions / queries.
Marketing Head, UNIBIC, Aarti Iyer shares, “I believe in technology as it opens up various opportunities to invent and provide different kinds of products and services. Having said that, I think ChatBots are still in its nascent stages. They have their limitations when it comes to understanding various queries posed by humans and can at best provide basic information like FAQs. Only very advanced AI can understand and comprehend normal conversational phrases as of right now. And this to my knowledge is still under development.”
Commenting on whether her company would be making use of ChatBots, she says, “So coming to using ChatBots for selling cookies, I don’t think it is an absolute must for us to invest in this technology. Cookies are mostly an impulse purchase or it is part of a monthly basket. Our consumers won’t be spending much time online to buy products (unless if it is a festive collection or family packs) and most definitely not be interacting with ChatBots for the same. Once the AI improves and if we were to launch products that require educating the people, we might consider it. But it is still not an intelligent investment for cookies. At best, you can link up with other apps like shopping, travel, etc. to guide people towards our products and variants.”
The India Story
On the dynamics of ChatBots as seen in India, Iyer shares an interesting perspective that is typical to Indian shopping habits, “ChatBots can help people take decisions in the future especially for higher value products. I am not sure if any of the companies in India are really using ChatBots to its full advantage. As we all know Indians tend to have a lot of questions and seek value (bargain) at any given opportunity. Currently, ChatBots are not that intuitive to address those. It can be helping people in the hospitality industry where the interactions can be limited and consumers can be well directed.”
Vice-President and Chief Information Officer at Arvind Lifestyle Brands Limited, Piyush Chowhan feels that the conversational commerce is still at nascent stage and is growing very rapidly. Keeping in mind how companies are gradually connecting with their patrons online, this does hold true.
Chowhan sees a huge opportunity for ChatBots in India. He says, “There is huge potential for use of BoTs. It’s very difficult to have large customer service agents and replacement of BoTs will help in delivering far better service. There are lot of use cases for implementation of BoTs in retail be it product search to customer service. It can span across the customer life cycle and really create a lot of difference in all the customer touch points for a retailer.”
Jaiswal feels that having ChatBots increases your availability to customers and it can just be another medium for them to make their purchase. He says, “Even if customers do not buy the product, their feedback is very valuable, which we may not get it from website or in stores.”
On how they are inciting their patrons to make use of ChatBots, Jaiswal reveals, “We are educating our customers on using ChatBots to get to know more about the product they wish to buy. We tell them that a ChatBot is like a personal stylist, who can help them look good if they share more information with it. And because it is based on Artificial Intelligence, a robot, it’s not partial to certain customers.”
Globus is also planning to begin a campaign for promoting ChatBots as personal stylists soon.
Combating ChatBot Challenges
Ranjit Satyanath is of the opinion that the Indian customer, while preferring to interact with another human being, is gradually open to interacting with technology such as IVR. BoTs are the natural next step.
Citing the challenges that ChatBots face, he says, “There is no established precedent to draw upon. Currently most retailers are in pilot mode to see what clicks with the customer. Retailers need to understand that this is not a ‘Deploy and Forget’ kind of application. To realize value, ‘training’ the BoT is essential. So, resources need to be allocated to constantly check on how customers are interacting with the BoTs and if the answers being given are relevant.”
“There are too many options out there. Evaluating and arriving at the right solution is time consuming. And one of the most important challenges that we need to overcome is to do with language. India has so many languages. Even English has a local context in several cases e.g. people may make references such as Chowli (for Kidney Beans) or Kakdi (Cucumber). Making BoTs relevant in even the top 10 languages is a major challenge,” he adds.
Reiterating on the language challenge, Sinha says, “First, the Natural Language Processing technology of ChatBots is not fully evolved to understand human slang, shortcuts, and notations etc. Secondly, a ChatBot’s ability to understand human emotions is a huge challenge. For example, jewellery buying is an emotional experience and at certain times, understanding the mood of the consumer is important, so humans can still play a better role here. Third there is the problem of language support. Not all the regional languages or dialects are supported for chatting.”
On whether ChatBots will see a ready acceptance in India, Jaiswal says he has his reservations. “Looking at the Indian market, I do not think it will change the way people shop completely but it will remain as an option along with online shopping after offline shopping. Offline shopping will still drive more sales than any other medium of sales. And this is true for international market too, that is the reason international players like H&M and Zara are opening stores in India. Otherwise they would not have open stores and invested more on ChatBots.”
According to Chowhan, the accuracy of the BoTs and the failure points pose as a challenge in ensuring their smooth operation in India. Talking about the challenges, he says, “The ability to integrate with the digital platforms of these BoTs and the ability of the BoTs to integrate with Machine Learning platforms are some challenges that still need to be faced.”
The absolute don’ts to be taken care of while implementing the ChatBot system according to Iyer are, “Make sure you don’t tell consumers that your ChatBot can answer ‘all types of queries’ unless and until you are absolutely sure for this might irritate picky consumers and drive them away from your brand.”
Chowchan advises companies to start small and include ChatBots in few areas, and learn from the mistakes. “Observe the failure points and try to make the BoTs more intelligent. The algorithms will evolve and retailers need to keep the pace of its evolution,” he says.
According to Jaiswal, less tech savvy customers pose a challenge to the acceptance of ChatBots in India. Specific to apparel brands, Jaiswal highlights an important point that automated responses faces – that of catering to queries related to size charts.
He explains, “Size chart varies from customer-to-customer even though they are in the same age group as the body structure differs from state to state in India.”
“In India, we do not celebrate all festivals across the country at the same time, so due to cultural differences choices also differs. Also, many consumers do not share proper information due to privacy concerns, leading to wrong product recommendation,” he adds.
Do’s & Don’ts For Using ChatBots By Ranjit Satyanath, CIO, Infiniti Retail
- Ensure that you have a compelling use case for ChatBots. Don’t do it because a vendor is offering a free PoC. Free PoCs rarely make it to production
- Spend enough time training and tweaking your BoT performance. Remember the GIGO principle
- Take a phase wise approach. The initial phases can give a lot of learning that can be incorporated in future deployments
According to Satyanath, the experience of a ChatBot can be enriched by keeping the BoT simple for the customer and it has to be designed in such a way that it effectively solves problems and is not there just for the sake of technology.
He further suggests, “Chat responses should be short sentences instead of long winding ones. Don’t use jargon and there should be an occasional use of humour – like in Siri (iPhone).”
Do’s & Don’ts For Using ChatBots By Atul Sinha, Senior V-P, Offline Marketing, CaratLane
- For the mundane information questions, have your ChatBots handle the load, saving the human time for more value-added solutions.
- If your support team works less than 24 hours a day, you can enable ChatBot for the non-human working hours so that there’s some support available for consumers anytime.
- It’s not advisable to be fully relying on ChatBot for conversations.
- Certain categories of business where there is a heavy reliance on human conversation, don’t try to force fit a ChatBot as it may backfire.
The Name Game
It is amusing but a lot of brands and retailers in India prefer using English names and female names for their messenger executives (whether a human or AI). But when we look at the cultural diversities in India, it is only fair that retailer do this so as to cut the risk of any differences that may arise just based on a name.
However, as Chowhan rightly points out, “A name should not matter, but having a name may create sense of belongingness to the same.”
Sinha begs to differ. He says, “Functional capability is more important than the name. For uninitiated users, the name might give a perception that there is a real user on the other end of the conversation. So, it helps sometimes.”
Satyanath concurs saying, “The name does matter. There’s a plethora of ChatBoT services out there and one wants to stand out from the clutter. Giving your BoT a unique name – preferably one that has synergy with the brand – would ensure easy recall. Also, a unique name helps it to be found easily in an online search.”
To conclude, ChatBots are here to stay and as Sinha suggests: “If we have a mix of ChatBot and human support, then it shall make the consumer experience interesting.”