• June 1, 2016
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Brands Bet on Bots

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Facebook, in April, opened Facebook Messenger to bots created by third-party developers, giving nearly 900 million people worldwide access to bots that perform an ever-increasing number of tasks.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a post on his company’s platform, said he expects bots to make it easier for consumers to communicate with companies: “Now you’ll be able to send messages to a business like you do with a friend and get a quick reply without taking your full attention or requiring you to install a new app,” he wrote.

Within just a few days of the Facebook release, dozens of CRM vendors, including Zendesk, Salesforce.com, Sparkcentral, Aspect Software, Synthetix, [24]7, Shopify, and LivePerson, had lined up to announce integrations with Facebook Messenger.

And a number of merchants, including Dutch airline KLM, launched bots that connected with the Facebook service.

The bot 1-800-FLOWERS launched for Facebook Messenger interacts with customers using natural language. It will serve as a gift concierge, answering customer questions, making gift suggestions, processing orders, sending shipping updates, and issuing gift reminders.

In a statement, Chris McCann, president of 1-800-FLOWERS, says the bot will take his company’s customer service “to a new level.”

TD Bank also released new customer service capability through Messenger, making its mobile site searchable by the bot, which can also connect customers to live support, provide general help with product and account questions, and supply maps to branch locations.

Beyond Facebook, Amazon’s Echo home automation device also features a voice-enabled smart assistant named Alexa that serves not only as the command-and-control bot but also as an interface for linking to a variety of other apps and bots. Included among them is an app that Capital One launched in March for customers to check account and credit card balances and recent transactions, find out when payments are due, and even pay bills through their Amazon Echo devices. Users could already order pizzas from Domino’s, control a number of smart home systems, and connect to a host of other services through the Alexa service.

In addition to these tech giants, a host of smaller start-ups, including Chatfuel, Msg.ai, Assist, X.ai, and Howdy, are also developing ways to connect businesses to customers using bots.

Overall, the tech industry as a whole has begun to embrace bots. Part of their appeal, experts contend, is that bots represent a new frontier in personal computing. Through bots, software developers will be able to circumvent app stores and reach consumers more directly by making the basic email and messaging tools people use every day smarter. Bots can easily be launched from existing email or text clients without requiring consumers to find and download apps, make space for them on their smartphones, create user names and passwords to log in to them, or do much of anything, really.

“We’ve seen that although people are downloading a lot of apps, they only use a small number on a regular basis,” says Zoe Lawrence, a director at research and consulting firm TNS.

Bots, she points out, enable companies to engage with customers in their own ecosystem, without requiring them to navigate to company apps or Web sites.

But, according to Lawrence, there’s also a challenge for companies launching bots. “The key is to keep users in control of the experience,” she says.

“There’s also a challenge for companies to ensure that they are organized to effectively respond,” she adds. Companies “will need to be able to deal with a wide variety of requests in this environment.” 

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