In Retail, Chatbots Underscore the Benefits of APIs

R2-D2. Rosie. KITT. As decades of famous science fiction robots show, a future with automated assistants has long been a foregone conclusion, and today, retail chatbots offer perhaps the most practical manifestation of that vision. While manufacturing automatons and home-vacuuming robots are great, having an AI assistant talk you through your shopping transaction is a magical moment—and one consumers will increasingly experience as retail chatbots become more functional and prevalent.

Beyond the consumer side, chatbots also underscore the many benefits of APIs, otherwise known as application programming interfaces. Without a customizable, integratable platform to do the heavy lifting, few retailers would have the capital and expertise needed to develop systems of their own. By providing chatbots or the framework to build them, APIs serve as equalizers in the ongoing struggle to provide the best experience possible.

Chatbots: The Smart, Highly Functional AIs Powering Retail Interactions

Turning back to the bots themselves, the technology’s advancement over the past several years has been nothing short of impressive. Once regarded as little more than proofs of concept, chatbots have moved from chatrooms to online storefronts, where they’ve assumed a growing list of tasks once exclusively handled by customer service representatives. This makes the technology perfectly suited for the front lines of retail, where it is notably adept at the following high-level jobs:

  • Self-Service: Users unable or unwilling to update their addresses or credit card details in a portal may be comfortable serving themselves in a conversational format, with the bot taking data.
  • Soft Searching: By the same token, a customer who isn’t comfortable searching for a product may be more willing to ask a bot. Think of the difference between plugging “drones” into a text field and telling a bot, “I’m looking for a drone.”
  • Ordering: On the back end, there isn’t much difference between an order being placed and a bot being told to place an order; to the right customer, however, it can make for an easier, better experience.

Context is King

These generalized takes, while impressive, are just the beginning of what bots can do. In the right context, the benefits of APIs give chatbots capabilities that mirror the more complex tasks humans handle.

The operative term here is context. A bot that offers situation-specific answers, information, and assistance to customers is a bot that provides value. It can also provide conversions when the bot is used in those critical moments before the sale. For example, an AI that says, “I noticed you were looking for a drone with a video camera but passed over items above a specific price range,” is a lot more useful than one that simply lists the top five most purchased items within a category.

Home assistant smart speakers apply the same concept here. A customer who tells their smart speaker to order shampoo and receives the same product they ordered the previous month—with no fuss or extra effort needed—benefits because the bot understands context.

This isn’t to say a chatbot’s value stops once the order ends. Take bots that text customers shipping-status updates, for example. Instead of customers having to hunt down tracking information themselves, they get a timely message in the same place where they hold other important conversations: their phone’s messaging client or IM window.

Requests for service are another area where bots can excel—and one where humans must work alongside AI colleagues. Imagine a customer purchases a product with a high second-contact rate. The bot dispatches the usual satisfaction survey and adds a final context-dependent question at the end: “Would you like to speak to a human representative for help with your purchase?” If the user answers yes, they are connected via chat or incoming call to a service rep, who helps them resolve the issue.

In the above situation, the bot knowing when to hand off to a human agent is the most important part of the conversation. Just as nobody wants to get caught in an IVR loop when seeking phone support, a chatbot fails to be functional the moment it misses the handoff moment. While this bar will continue to move as bots grow in capability, knowing exactly where it lies is important for any retailer using chatbots.

How Chatbots Illustrate the Benefits of APIs

As mentioned above, chatbots are also an excellent showcase for the many benefits of APIs. Simply put, building an AI that can handle an e-commerce transaction is no easy task. This alone makes APIs—which are explicitly designed to add advanced capabilities to existing web apps and other systems—the perfect bridge.

Of course, tweaking a chatbot to the individual retailer’s systems, processes, and available products is still a heady task that requires skilled technical staff to implement. Even then, however, it’s less complex and expensive than designing and developing an AI from scratch. Whether a company uses the framework of a bot API to design a highly customized system that works with their structure or they use an out-of-the-box assistant for more basic customer needs, the benefits of APIs shine through. Even a company with the resources to invest in ground-up development may find an API-backed product to be every bit as workable and functional as something they could build on their own.

This thought will only grow more relevant as chatbots continue to pick up skills and prove themselves indispensable. In essence, APIs will continue to ensure the best, most useful additions are available to any retailer willing to integrate.

That’s excellent news for smaller retailers, who use the tools to take pressure off their human support reps. It’s also great news at the enterprise level, where APIs and related support allow for easier prototyping, faster deployment, and simpler implementation of cutting-edge features. If chatbots are good for customers and support reps, the benefits of APIs are undeniable for the companies that rely on both.

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