Can chatbots save local e-tailers?

As the prevalence of chatbots increases rapidly, research firm Gartner predicts that by 2020 a quarter of customer service and support operations will have bots doing the talking.

As natural language processing improves, combined with progress in artificial intelligence and machine learning, these bots should become so advanced that for all intents and purposes clients won’t know they are interacting with a non-sentient being.  And the advantages will be clear – the use of chatbots to deal with client queries is set to provide a global cost-saving benefit of more than US$8bn/ year by 2022, according to a report from Juniper Research.

Can chatbots save local e-tailers?

One of the local sectors that stand to benefit most from the implementation of bots is e-commerce. Much has been said about SA’s rather poor uptake of online shopping; it is blamed on a lack of credit cards and high data costs, or might simply be an issue of trust. But why isn’t there a sustained push to make the shopping experience as smooth as possible for those who actually are shopping online?

Chatbots can certainly help with the customer experience, particularly to alleviate the staggeringly high rate of abandoned electronic shopping carts. Worldwide in 2016 goods worth more than $4.6 trillion did not make it through the checkout stage. The reasons are wide-ranging and include shoppers using the basket to compare products, having a problem with the final payment process or simply being distracted by real life.

Whatever it is, imagine being able to convert even a quarter of that into sales. Chatbots are able to interact with the shopping cart, help with questions during the shopping experience or, in the case of cart abandonment, remind customers of the cart as soon as they return. In certain cases, these bots can work through messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger, to prompt customers about their unfinished purchase and assist with whatever problems were faced. 

A poor user experience on mobile is certainly part of the problem with abandoned carts, particularly in a country that is as dependent on Internet access through smartphones as SA. If you’ve ever shopped from a PC and later did the same from a smartphone, you know that the experience can be quite different, with information and links lost in the process of adapting to a smaller screen. By using chatbots, customers can ask for assistance at any time – the bots in that way helping to plug information gaps.

We’re also moving closer to 24 November, known as Black Friday, when many retailers offer bargains. This shopping phenomenon has over the past few years picked up quite a bit of momentum locally, not just boosting online sales but also signing up first-time shoppers. But, while last year e-tailers managed the influx of traffic well, their call centres struggled. Chatbots could resolve a number of problems straight away, helping to relieve the burden on their human counterparts. Speaking of which, have you ever been stuck in a call queue for customer enquiries during a flash sale, and watched the clock counting down? Since bots can handle numerous requests at the same time at all times, there’s no waiting. Also, upselling, which is crucial in these challenging economic times, can also be done through chatbot software.

While the implementation of chatbots calls for an upfront investment by e-tailers, the cost is not as high as expected. It is advisable that, rather than trying to address all facets of the shopping experience at once, get the implementation on one aspect right, for example checkout, and then move on to the next. It may take a bit of time as chatbots learn to address problems and communicate better with customers, but the payoff will be there, improving customer satisfaction and, ultimately, an upswing of the bottom line.


This article previously appeared on Financial Mail