A look at Madison Reed's chatbot in action.

Madison Reed is doing everything it can to help women avoid bad dye jobs, including programming a virtual customer service agent to provide personalized hair-color tips.

The digital at-home hair-color specialist has launched a Facebook Messenger chatbot, nicknamed Madi, to offer hair-color recommendations based on selfies. Madison Reed reports it’s the first such artificially intelligent conversationalist to be powered by visual recognition in the hair-color segment.

“This company’s hallmark is disrupting the industry by using technology to meet customers exactly where they are,” said Amy Errett, founder and chief executive officer of Madison Reed. “If you look at what’s happening in cosmetics or skin care, whether it’s ColorIQ at Sephora or photo matching for skin problems at dermatologists, there is the beginnings of advanced undertakings. We haven’t seen anything really happening in our hair-care category, and we thought we were the company to tackle it.”

Upon clicking on a Facebook ad for Madison Reed, potential customers are directed to the Facebook Messenger interface, where they are prompted to upload pictures of themselves featuring their hair. The photos are then analyzed to identify the primary color of the tresses as well as secondary tones. After the split-second analysis, the chatbot supplies hair-color shade suggestions, which can be immediately purchased on Madison Reed’s mobile web site.

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Madison Reed has plenty of experience making hair-color referrals informed by photos. At its call-in center, Errett noted the company’s pool of 23 licensed colorists regularly evaluates pictures before advising people on hair-color shades. In total, she revealed Madison Reed has amassed 1.4 million hair-color profiles from a digital hair-color quiz over two years, and studied that data to refine virtual consultations.

Dave King, chief technology officer at Madison Reed, pointed out that one of the biggest hurdles in developing Madi was to make it operate in a multitude of lighting scenarios. “Matching what the camera saw to our color line was a challenge. We did that through brute force. We went through a lot of pictures and trained it,” he explained.

Madison Reed’s customers, primarily women ages 35 to 65, are already connecting with the company extensively via cellphones or tablets. Errett disclosed some 60 percent of them arrive at the brand on a mobile device, up from 40 percent two years ago. In addition to Facebook Messenger, Madison Reed will soon roll out its Madi virtual assistant to SMS text. If human expertise is desired, a real-life colorist can be tapped in SMS text or Facebook Messenger for guidance.

Errett doesn’t think it will take much education for customers to figure out how to engage with Madison Reed’s chatbot. “Regardless of the age group, they [customers] understand the camera on their mobile phone. We didn’t have to teach them a new behavior. It’s embedded in what they do everyday,” she said, noting, “Our customer is 100 percent on Facebook, and she’s used to seeing ads and content there.” Added King, “What we love about Facebook Messenger is that there is no app to download, and it is conversational by nature just like a color-match conversation they [customers] can get with our colorists.”

Madison Reed is confident its chatbot will spur sales. The company’s more than 40 shades of permanent colors are $24.95 each for one-time purchases, and it also sells Color Reviving Gloss for $29.95, Root Touch Up for $29.95, a Nourishing Color Enhancing Shampoo and Conditioner Set for $36.95, and various hair-color accessories from $7.95 to $19.95. The Root Touch Up entered Sephora last year.

“It provides seamless interaction with commerce. The days of fumbling around on mobile and swiping a hundred times are done,” said Errett. King continued, “Today, we have a ton of transactions that happen in the Facebook in-app browser, and we feel that this is no different.”

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