How to solve ecommerce's conversation conundrum

Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
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“If you search for shoes on Amazon, God help you,” says Kriti Sharma, Sage’s director of bot products, “You’re totally stuck, it comes back with 100,000 options.”

Sharma’s Amazon shoe dilemma neatly captures ecommerce’s central problem. Until now, companies have been unable to translate the naturalistic, conversational sales process of in-store onto the internet.

“In the tech industry, this isn’t easy to solve. It’s not easy to enable conversation. You used to be able to do that when you go into a shop and you speak to a sales person and say ‘yeah, I’m looking for XYZ’ and they helped you out.”

The reason why it’s been difficult is simple: the technical capacity has been lacking. The human ability to converse, to have a semantic understanding of constructs like slang, is actually an incredibly complex phenomenon.

Until now, the software industry’s patchwork solution has been UI (user interface). “Which is buttons, press here, scroll through, click there,” explains Sharma. It does a job – but it’s far removed from a real interaction.

“But now there’s a new concept emerging with the evolution of bots and AI put together and this is called conversational commerce,” says Sharma. “Humans are wired for conversations. We’re not wired for ‘pick option three, press button number four’.”

You could have a conversation with brands and they will be able to speak to you like a person.

Chris Messina, the inventor of the hashtag and Uber’s head of developer experience recently defined conversational commerce as – deep breath: “[it] pertains to utilizing 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.”

Sharma has a slightly simpler explanation. “[Conversational commerce] means nothing more than just how you used to have a conversation with a store – you could have a conversation with brands. These brands will be able to speak to you like a person.” All over the tech sphere companies have begun to pivot their models to adjust to conversational commerce.

The messaging monolith WhatsApp recently spiked its small annual fee to go completely free. The reason? Conversational commerce.

“Starting this year, we will test tools that allow you to use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and organisations that you want to hear from,” the Facebook-owned company said in a statement. “That could mean communicating with your bank about whether a recent transaction was fraudulent, or with an airline about a delayed flight.”

According to Sharma, the rise of conversational commerce will benefit smaller retailers tremendously, too. “If you’re a large corporation, you can invest in a help desk and call centres. Small businesses have tighter margins. The scale is also different.

“With a bot, it’s easy to build for a particular task. You already have the database; you’re just surfacing it to users in the form of a conversation. You don’t need to do a lot of development or create new web pages.”

And there’s no reason to confine conversational commerce to your own website. Bots offer a new lease of life for social media, too.  “People are getting bored of social media,” says Sharma. “If you go on Facebook, there’s too much going on – I can’t deal with it.

“When you’re a business and you’re trying to engage with customers on a social media feed, it’s not very effective.” Instead, users have migrated to more personal, individualised messengers.

Bots have the ability to naturally inject themselves into a person’s day in a way that a push notification can’t. “If something is relevant to a user, you can have a conversation about with them via a bot. This is different to just post it online and everyone sees it.”

WhatsApp recently spiked its small annual fee to go completely free. The reason? Conversational commerce.

At Sage, Sharma has spearheaded the launch of Pegg, a bot assistant that helps with daily tasks like expenses. Pegg’s interactions have provided an interesting insight into how consumers react to bot led conversations. “When we launched Pegg, we looked to see how a message from Pegg compared to a push notification that you might get.

“For us, the bot message was way more effective than a push notification. People always pay attention to a conversation and the bot presents it in a friendly way. It’s also critical that it’s useful, if I start spamming, well, people are going to hate that.”

Pegg’s success returns to a basic need, the human desire to interact. “Now you can do tasks online, order an Uber or a pizza, through conversation. It’s nothing fancy but it’s a simplification of the content pollution we have.”

About Francois

About Francois

Francois is the deputy editor of BusinessZone and UK Business Forums.


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