The Customer Is The Channel

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Conversational Commerce is the Future and the Present

Chris Messina, who helped to popularize the term and is the Developer Experience Lead at Uber, declared “2016 will be the year of conversational commerce.” What he predicted back in early 2015 has now become a reality -- leading brands are already capitalizing on these channels and leaving their competitors behind. What does that mean for your brand? When you master conversational commerce, you’ll deliver experiences that make your customers feel as if you hired a personal assistant to help each of them. “Not only do companies today need to exceed customer expectations, but they need to make it easy for the customer to do business with the company,” writes Forbes’ Blake Morgan. “Want a powerful customer experience? Simply ask yourself how easy you can make life for your customers.”

Recognizing The Conversational Commerce Around You

If you think conversational commerce is still a pinpoint on the retail horizon and that you and your organization will have plenty of time to prepare for it, you’re wrong. Enabling AI technology is already all around us, helping to make our daily lives and our interaction with brands easier.

Let’s say a potential partner emails you for a meeting next week. You respond and CC Clara, who takes it from there, setting up your meeting over a few emails with your partner, putting it on both your calendars, and even reminding you. You might not even have to tell your contact that Clara isn’t a person, but a bot. And she’s not the only one scheduling meetings - this kind of technology is now commonly available and we may see bots working with other bots to book our calendars sooner than we expect.

Your 10-year anniversary is coming up, so you plan a quick getaway to celebrate. You text Taylor, and she recommends locations based on your budget and hotels based on reviews. She even offers to book your flight for you. You thank her, feeling a bit silly, because Taylor is also a bot. On the way out the door, you realize you’re out of pens. You call over your shoulder, “Ok Google, order me some pens.” Your Google Home’s Assistant will do just that from one of over 50 Google Express retailers. “Got it, ordering pens from Walgreens,” Assistant replies. And without looking at a screen or touching anything, you’ve restocked your home office.

Clara, Taylor, Alexa (and Google Assistant and Cortana) sound (mostly) like members of the next big girl group but, as Will Oremus writes in Slate, they and their ilk are actually harbingers of our new digital reality: “Like card catalogs and AOL-style portals before it, Web search will begin to fade from prominence, and with it the dominance of browsers and search engines.


Mobile apps as we know them— icons on a home screen that you tap to open—will start to do the same. In their place will rise an array of virtual assistants, bots, and software agents that act more and more like people: not only answering our queries, but acting as our proxies, accomplishing tasks for us, and asking questions of us in return,” he writes

As customer behavior evolves, so do their expectations around B2C communications. Today’s retail shopper interacts with brands that use the platforms she relies on as fluidly as she does. Whether she thinks about it in such terms, she wants truly conversational commerce and despite the difficulties in creating a seamless interaction, it’s up to you to deliver it. “You can no longer segment yourself to service practices that only you are comfortable with,” says Amir Zonozi, Chief Strategy Officer of Social Influence at Zoomph, an engagement platform. “When a customer reaches out to you on Twitter, it needs to be solved on Twitter. When they reach out to you via email, it needs to be solved via email. Asking your customers to switch their preferred method of communication is taking your customer out of their comfort zone and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.”

As commerce continues to evolve, consumers will rely more on these conversational channels for interacting with brands and it is up to these brands to be providing a holistic and differentiated customer experience.  Below are some of the key terms you should know as you begin your journey of building out a conversational commerce strategy.

Terms To Know:

  • App fatigue: The decline of app popularity, especially brand apps, caused by a backlash against too many notifications, the saturated app market, and the need for updates from both developers and customers. Forrester Research reports that people spend over 80% of their time on their phone is their 5 favorite apps which tend to be social, messaging and media apps.

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): An umbrella term for any ability of computers to perform tasks that otherwise require human mental capacity, for example speech recognition, visual perception, language translation, and decision-making.

  • Automatic Speech Recognition. (ASR): Computer transcription of spoken language in real time.

  • Bot: Any software application that runs automated tasks, called scripts, over the internet.

  • Chatbot: A software application that simulates a conversation with a human.

  • ServiceBot: A brand-developed software application that lives within a messaging or voice-activated channel and can provide product order status updates and support customers in making returns and exchanges, among other tasks.

  • Conversational User Interface (CUI): An intelligent interface that allows for input either through voice or text commands in a style similar to the way humans communicate and provides contextual responses in the same manner.

  • Machine learning: The ability of computer programs and software to acquire new data and change behavior without additional reprogramming.

  • Natural Language Processing: The interactions between computers and human languages.

You can learn more about conversational commerce by exploring Linc’s platform and solutions pages. Or take a look at how leading brands like Lamps Plus, and others are using automated conversational commerce strategies in their businesses today, in our resources page.


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Turning Touchpoints into a Journey

Every interaction with your customer is important, and maximizing the effectiveness of touchpoints has been a valid business concern for some time. Research from McKinsey, however, highlights the blind spot in this kind of thinking -- true leading brands have moved from a touchpoints-focus to a focus on the holistic customer journey.

Designing a Customer Experience Strategy for Conversational Commerce

When you master conversational commerce, you’ll deliver experiences that make your customers feel as if you hired a personal assistant to help each of them.  There are several key strategies, smart brands need to think about as they go about creating their conversational commerce strategy. Don’t Forget The Data If conversational commerce is the new paradigm of customer experience, data is the engine that drives all those delightful interactions across touchpoints. Your customers are creating data every time they click, swipe, and like --it’s up to you to find it, analyze it and use it to inform customer engagement. Nordstrom, for example, uses sensors and Wi-Fi to track who comes to the store, wherein the store they shop, and how long they stay. They also incentivize their Nordstrom’s credit card and rewards program to gather data about their clients. Target is also known for its data-collecting. The mega-retailer assigns every customer a Guest ID number, which is linked to their credit card, name, or email address. This Guest ID number becomes a repository of info on a shopper’s past Target purchases and any demographic information the company has collected about them and/or bought from a third-party source. Target’s data is so accurate and fine-grained that they were even able to determine a teenage shopper was pregnant (and send her the appropriate mailer filled with baby items) long before her father ever knew. Collecting relevant data, analyzing it and using your learnings to inform which conversational channels make sense for your brand and what types of experiences your particular customers seek to have on them is the foundation of your conversational commerce efforts. Focus On The Highest-Value Activities Put your energy toward meaningful services that customers already care about. Look at service-oriented features, such as notification capability and on-demand service and support capabilities, to guide the customer journey. Don’t just focus on the “Checkout.” The main benefit of service-oriented conversational channel offerings is the ability to organically drive usage into new channels. For example, a customer might place an order on your website and learn that she can subscribe to order status updates through Facebook Messenger. What she sees as taking advantage of a perk will benefit you by encouraging her toward a channel where your chatbot can take over. ChatBots are best for organic conversations with common use cases, but also provide a sense of personalization and convenience for the shopper. Customer service should be your core use for this technology to start. Be Prepared For Bot-to-Human Handoffs The great thing about a conversation handled over text or Messenger is that the customer doesn’t have to know when they might be switching from a bot to a human. Bot design in the future will focus on what they can do, knowing what they can’t do, and designing a bridge to employee assistance that feels seamless to the customer. It’s not just the customer that will be helped by the bot, but the employee. It will provide faster information and better analytics in real time, perhaps then parsing information to pass on to the consumer. The most important aspect of innovation is convenience for the shopper. They should never have to explain their request twice. Start Simple and Grow to Brand Management You can start with bots as a single voice in the chorus of messages from your brand. The long term will have bots as representatives of your entire brand, managing relationships with your customers. You can start conversational commerce, however, with just a single entry point. You can get your customers used to interacting with you on the same channels they use to chat with their friends. You can piggyback on the culture of quick and informal communication, but be ready to meet their expectations for highly personal and meaningful results. If your bot can’t meet that expectation, your customer could walk away disappointed or annoyed. As the technology improves, and it is, even as we write this, you’ll be able to put more and more of your brand management in the hands of the bots. Authentication Giving your bot a way to confirm the customer’s identity is key to a truly intelligent communication that can leverage data from across your other channels. If this isn’t done right, your bot will see each customer as a stranger, negating the opportunity to provide personalized service. Focus On Concepts Rather Than Solutions Your customers might be on Kik today but head over to Facebook Messenger tomorrow. Focusing on the concepts of conversational commerce rather than today’s hottest medium will help you keep your sanity and provide an agile approach that can be applied to meet your customers wherever they migrate. Try not to get bogged down with the details of how to build for one particular channel, and look instead to use-cases. You can learn more about conversational commerce and engaging your customers at every touchpoint by exploring Linc’s platform and solutions pages. Or take a look at how leading brands like Lamps Plus, and others are using automated conversational commerce strategies in their businesses today, in our resources page.