Conversational commerce: killer direct channel or just plain confusing?

Driving so-called ‘conversational commerce’ is the next phase in the travel company-customer relationship but it’s a complicated affair, as Pamela Whitby has been finding out

In what Thomson is hailing as an ‘industry first’, last week the holiday group said it would trial a travel search tool using IBM’s Watson Technology, which uses natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence to allow computers to think like a human.

In a company press release, Jeremy Osborne, Director of Strategic Innovation, TUI UK&I is quoted saying: “We wanted to test whether a conversational search experience would resonate with our customers as a new, fun and easy way to find their ideal holiday”.

And the response, it seems, was overwhelmingly positive with 77% of participants in the survey saying they would find a virtual assistant useful. The idea is that Thomson customers will be able to interact via a simple chat interface to get responses in real-time to their holiday queries.For the uninitiated, this may sound like Thomson is launching a chat bot. But the group’s conversational tool, which is still in beta, is still one step away from this.

77% of participants said they would find a virtual assistant useful 

IBM’s Watson Technology, which Thomson is using, is not a chat bot solution in itself, but rather a tool to use for NLP and eventually artificial intelligence that will help make bots smarter. However, it’s not the only one, and other free alternatives have emerged that have been drawn into the fold of the internet giants; Facebook has acquired, Google has and Microsoft has LUIS.

Building relationships, selling product

Clearly then, the battle of giants to dominate in this space is on, but what exactly is the battle for?

Broadly speaking, it’s the race to drive ‘conversational commerce,’ a phrase first coined by Uber’s Chris Messina who defined it as ‘utilising chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (ie. voice) to interact with people, brands, or services and bots that heretofore have had no real place in the bidirectional, asynchronous messaging context…’

To put in plain English, using these channels as just another way to build a stronger relationship with the customer and ultimately sell more travel product. What many see as the next phase in customer interaction, driven by of the huge rise in the use messenger apps – and not just Facebook, but FB, but WhatsApp, iMessage, Telegram, Slack and more.

Facebook, however, seems to be where most brands seem to be focusing their energy. Back in December 2015 Uber announced that through its API ‘Messenger now enables its millions of users to sign up for Uber with one tap and request a ride, all without having to leave Messenger or download the Uber app’. 

Even some airlines, often slower to innovative because of their reliance on archaic technical systems, are moving in this direction. An EyeforTravel report Improving the Airline Experience highlights some of the first movers. Dutch carrier KLM, for one, became the first airline to offer booking, check-in confirmation, boarding passes and flight status updates via Facebook Messenger. KLM has even added Facebook’s ‘send to messenger’ button to traveller documentation during the booking flow. This means that customers can now receive a receipt, itinerary and boarding pass via Messenger, and those who opt in for this may find that in the future could in the future receive concierge-like communication with KLM via Messenger.

IcelandAir is another that has joined forces with Facebook – it was one of the early adopters of Facebook’s ‘Bots on Messenger’, which allows customers to start a conversation via Messenger and also book directly from within the app.

However, some airlines, says Mike Slone, Chief Experience Officer of tech firm Travelaer, are still not responding to requests via Messenger fast enough.

Customer service not sales 

While Facebook Messenger is the focus for many travel brands, Dutch low cost carrier, Transavia, a subsidiary of Air France KLM, is using WhatsApp messaging for customer service. It could be on to something.

Interestingly, while the term ‘conversational commerce’ implies that the tool should be used to drive sales, customer services may be where it is at right now.

According to Travelaer research very often people turn to messenger apps after all other customer service agents have failed. “So they are there to complain or get help, rather than buy something,” Slone says.

…while the term ‘conversational commerce’ implies that the tool should be used to drive sales, customer services may be where it is at right now

This is something that Expedia seems to have clocked. Speaking at the OTA’s 20-year anniversary press conference earlier this month Expedia’s Scott Crawford, Vice President, Product Management, said that given the high number of people using Facebook messenger it is expecting “a lot more activity in this area”. However, he was quick to add that NLP lends itself very nicely to customer service queries and open-ended search questions.

A lesson perhaps for airlines! “Frankly, based on our research this summer, 70% of airlines aren’t even responding to private conversations using humans via Facebook Messenger, so it isn’t a surprise that they are not adopting bots via Messenger at a fast rate!” Slone says.

Confusing issues

Getting conversational commerce right can be confusing; it certainly involves more than just using an NLP tool like Watson or simply launching a chat bot. (Watch out for next week’s story: Do’s & Don’ts: useful titbits for chat bots in travel)

To highlight the complexity, there are in fact three layers to address – an interface layer on top, an engine in the middle and API/connectors underneath.

What brands need to recognise is that the battle isn’t just for the bot space but the intelligence to make bots smarter and more useful, says Slone. He adds that, “otherwise, if you are building a bot that is rules based, you can never come up with enough rules.”

It may still be early days, but Thomson may be right to focus on intelligence first by harnessing the power of a solution like Watson, which is capable of processing human speech or text patterns to filter useful data like intent and context - something all travel brands are after.

The ability to understand customer intent and context will be crucial for the success conversational commerce

The ability to understand customer intent and context will be crucial for the success conversational commerce. Because if a customer comes via messaging app to complain and you then try to sell them something they don’t want, chances are you will have lost them forever.

So as 2016 draws to a close it’s clear that the growth opportunities for conversational commerce cannot be ignored. But before jumping the gun travel companies should really be thinking carefully about how this new way of interacting with customers slots into their overall digital strategy.

To find out more about the future of conversational commerce join us for EyeforTravel Europe 2017 next year where Travelaer’s Mike Slone will be speaking alongside Michael Mrini, Director of Information Technology, Edwardian Hotels and Guðmundur Guðnason Director, Icelandair Digital Labs

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