A few years ago, Everlane started using chatbots on its website to handle customer queries – only to ditch it later.  As the name suggests, these were fully automated chatbots, and after customers criticised the experience for being clunky and impersonal, Everlane retired the initiative and “decided to stick with what we do best – email”.

Conversational commerce, which is the label we use for business-to-consumer interactions that happen in traditionally personal channels such as chat and messaging apps, has come a long way since.

Today, visiting a fashion store over messaging feels much more like walking into a physical outlet. So much so that brides-to-be are actually conducting their wedding-day shopping over chats, engaging with sales associates, searching for the right products through Social Commerce, and leaving with a strong impression of the identity of the brand or retailer they were chatting to.

Unlike past, purely automated conversations, today shoppers get a warm reception and personal attention. And unlike browsing an eCommerce catalogue, where even the most granular machine-learning-derived recommendations are still the result of guesswork, conversational commerce can replicate the in-store experience by connecting shoppers with brand experts who can style them personally, or point them in the direction of the right products for a particular occasion, in the right size.

At the centre of this change is an overall shift in how people think about messaging.  Where once platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and even SMS were seen as quick ways of holding short conversations, those apps have now been enriched with extra functionality, integrations, and additional experiences.  WhatsApp today is a place to get things done, arrange returns, research new products, and in some territories it can also be integrated directly with payment providers.

Digital-first brands and retailers have already seen this change occurring, and they’ve reoriented their operations to take advantage of the shift in consumer behaviour – something that allowed them to take swift action when COVID suddenly reshaped the landscape of retail channels earlier this year. 

These direct to consumer brands have opened up conversational channels of communication and retail for their shoppers through apps like Messenger and WhatsApp, reaching their target demographics through services they already use, and they have also added person-to-person chat to their eCommerce websites and social media platforms.  And the results they have realised speak for themselves: increased top-line sales, improved customer satisfaction, greater conversion through social channels, and significant jumps in customer loyalty and retention.

More importantly, there’s ample reason to believe that the changes wrought by COVID could become permanent, and consumer behaviour is therefore not likely to slide back once shoppers have been accustomed to chatting directly with the brands and retailers they want to engage with.  Which is why I wanted to set out what I see as the five forces that are going to drive further use of conversational commerce in 2021 and beyond.

  1. Customers expect 24/7 access.

Shoppers want answers, and they want them now.  It might be details about the material composition and sustainability profile of a particular garment, or it might be a simple question of sizing or shipping timelines. Either way, the retailer that fails to respond quickly is the retailer that loses business to the competition.  These kinds of interactions are often quite spontaneous – emerging organically as a potential customer is browsing your Instagram feed and social commerce platforms, or is in a potential cross-sell situation with multiple items from a single collection in their cart, and capitalising on them requires spontaneity, too. This demand for spontaneity has caused a resurgence in the use of live chat agents and chatbot in eCommerce.

  • Young shoppers don’t fear automation (read chatbot in eCommerce).

Although Everlane had limited success with its early experiments, as we’ve said, automation is not inherently a bad thing.  In fact, younger demographics are accustomed to searching with the help of voice assistants, relying on AI for navigation and photo-tagging, and much more.  And these are the same generations that opt for self-checkout in supermarkets, and self-check-in at airports; for them, interaction with another person is often a complication rather than a benefit.  This is why I believe the future of chat based eCommerce will need to blend human interaction with AI automation.  AI chatbots have advanced in a big way – as evidenced by the dominance of Alexa, Siri, and the Google Assistant – and for straightforward shipping questions, returns, transactions, and customer onboarding, an eCommerce chatbot can deliver a smooth experience at a scale even an army of human operators could not.

And when conversations take an unexpected turn, or veer towards more complex topics, the same chatbots are smart enough to transfer the interaction to a human agent. Having this balance between automated chatbots and personal interactions is a win-win for brands and customers.

  • Time-poor shoppers don’t operate on your schedule.

Time is a scarce resource for us all.  And where once our shopping was done in physical stores, which required dedicated trips and a real time commitment, consumers today snatch a few minutes here and there – on breaks from Zoom calls, over breakfast, or when the kids are asleep.  And the only kind of store they can conveniently hop in and out of in these “micro moments” is one that’s immediately accessible, through channels they’re probably already using for entertainment or socialisation.  Capturing their attention is, then, about meeting them where they already are – by having your advisors give them style tips through Instagram, or having them share videos, images, and product data through rich media inserted directly into the chat window or app. When you cannot connect customers with live agents, but still want to respond, you use what we know as chatbot in eCommerce.

  • Frictionless checkouts earn five stars.

No wait times, no redirects to payment gateways, no errors – all completely secure and transparent. While some hiccups remain with integrating social and conversational channels with payment providers in the West, in other countries brands and retailers are already transacting directly through messaging apps.  And this level of smooth, seamless engagement leads to dramatic increases in convergence from initial interest to purchase.  And if you have a pre-existing eCommerce or logistics backend, then a conversation can become a transactional entity, for fulfilment, without any manual intervention.  The result for the customer? A frictionless checkout. The result for the brand? A simplified sales cycle, immediate engagement, and improved customer satisfaction.

  • From conversation to CRM.

Having two different customer records for the same person means having broken insights. Similarly, getting second-hand data from marketplaces like Amazon or guessing them from your eCommerce Google Analytics is also not good enough. In comparison, conversational commerce is a goldmine of first hand and real-time customer insights. Not only can you run proactive surveys, but you can connect the dots and get a fuller picture of your customers’ personas, social commerce platform engagement, in-store purchases, and expressed preferences. When you combine these with your broader customer data platforms, you get a more holistic view of the customer, better align your loyalty marketing strategies and post-purchase engagement.

The conversation could be your next channel – chat based eCommerce.

Even before the pandemic, both people used to chat and shop online. Anyone, almost anywhere, had the ability to connect with anyone else, and the barriers of distance were being broken down.  Obviously COVID has accelerated this, and for many people remote interaction has now become the standard.  This is likely to continue even when lockdowns end, and people begin returning to work, and to physical stores. The immediacy of doing business remotely, quickly, through the messaging apps they already use is going to become even more compelling as the pace of life starts to return to normal.

From checking out your new season collections to actually ‘checking out,’ a whole new sales channel can fit into conversations. 

Chat based eCommerce is here to stay.

About Jumper.ai:Jumper.ai, headquartered in Singapore, is an established, full-cycle conversational commerce and shopper engagement platform which helps brands like Disney, Unilever, Samsung, BMW, and Loreal sell directly to consumers through interactive platform-native storefronts on WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger, and iMessage, among others.