A newbie’s thoughts on conversational commerce

I’ve recently had a number of friends in marketing ask for my thoughts on the future of customer experience: chatbots, conversational commerce and other hot topics for 2017.

For me personally, I really excited to see what happens in the chat and voice space.  

While current chatbots are fun to try, most are buggy and lack a compelling use case for long-term engagement. Much like Alexa is really only good for dad jokes (and arguably a good excuse for why your kids are rude), the technology is there but the use cases could use some work.

Now, more than ever, consumers are expecting more from brands. Instant responses on social media. Timely, relevant push notifications. And most importantly, they want honest and authentic conversation. No bullshit, no pre-canned responses or delayed replies. As marketers, this means we need to understand mobile, social and build for real-time conversation.

I’ve heard the term “conversational commerce” being thrown around, so I wanted to do a little research and break down what this means for marketers. To keep things simple, conversational commerce means communicating in an authentic way (generally this means using mobile messaging to sell your products). Sending the right messages at the right time to add the most value for you customers (and ultimately, make the most impact across the business). It may sound complex, but it’s really all about building the right conversation engine and creating something that can scale quickly.

From a product perspective, this may raise a lot of questions.

Who will own this internally? Is it Product, Marketing, Customer Support? What channels do we need to set up? Do we need in-product messaging, push notifications, Facebook Messenger?

For every business the actual application will vary, but the overarching theme is really clear: customers want a more intuitive, human experience.

Here are some simple questions I’ve been starting to ask:

  1. Are you communicating at the right time?
    1. Urgent SMS messages (delivered and read immediately)
    2. On-time updates (arrival alerts and deliver confirmations)
  2. Are you communicating in a friendly manner?
    1. Un-intrusive SMS messages (easy to read, doesn’t warrant phone call or email)
    2. Reduce emails and phone calls (quick communications, without being viewed as spam)
  1. Are you communicating instantly?
    1. Triggered instant messages to reduce your initial response time (Keep in mind: Very Responsive brands on Facebook need to reply within 15 minutes of initial message)

Let’s look at Nordstrom as a good example.

For over 100 years, Nordstrom has focused on exceptional customer service.

As more and more competitors have entered the market, Nordstrom has successfully maintained its ‘customer first’ approach.

As a general rule of thumb, delivering on customer centricity involves these steps:

For Nordstrom in 2016, this is no easy job. Providing a seamless, omni-channel experience is tough and increasingly competitive. Consumers are spending up to 21 minutes per day discovering new brands on Instagram. Online retailers like Amazon offer same day shipping and new disruptors like Everlane promise radical transparency. Sounds like a tough gig for a century old retailer, right?

For Nordstrom, they needed a way to deliver exceptional service in a mobile friendly way.

With help from Twilio, Nordstrom developed NEXT, a service that lets customers text their salespeople privately when they need assistance or have requests. Whether it’s sharing the latest fashion trends and asking questions about size and fit, Nordstrom has created a unique platform for sales associates to connect with customers in a meaningful way.

Diving a little deeper, here are some specific use cases for NEXT:

  • Remind customers of product arrivals that they’ve been waiting for
  • Offer exceptional support: sizing, style suggestions and more
  • Exclusive invites to events and sale previews
  • Photo sharing: style tips, pictures of merchandise, etc.

With advancements in technology and a shift towards mobile, customers expect personalized communications. Disruptive brands are thinking more and more about meaningful engagements and what it means to bridge online and offline communications.

For retailers like Nordstrom, here are two potential ways to offer customer support via SMS

  1. Real-time alerts: “The dress that you have saved in your favorites is now available online. Should we ship this to your home address?”
  2. Engagement and referrals: “This is Katie at Nordstrom, we’re having a free makeover event this Friday. Can I put you and a friend down for this?”

Putting myself in the customer’s shoes is really easy for this one. I’m not brand loyal or price sensitive, however I’ve fully embraced the “buy fewer, but better things” mentality.

Given that I have a very particular style and make very considered purchases, I would welcome style suggestions from Nordstrom stylists. I never have the time (nor the desire) to search for new pieces for my ultra-minimalist wardrobe, which is mostly constrained by classic San Francisco-sized closet.

For me personally, I’m still waiting to see interesting use cases for conversational commerce outside of retail. Please comment with relevant examples you’ve seen.

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