Artificial intelligence is increasingly integrated into the everyday business setting, with chatbots serving as one of the most mainstream, cost-effective and useful examples. Not only are these virtual assistants bolstering employee operations by cutting down on many of the more menial tasks — i.e., checking shoppers’ order statuses — they’re improving the consumer-business relationship by offering quick, 24/7 support and a first line of contact.

Chatbots are demonstrating a clear ability to improve enterprise functions, especially in the retail industry, so much so that they are projected to cut business costs $8 billion by 2022. We have a ways to go before we see optimal usage and broad acceptance from consumers — in fact, more than half globally still prefer to speak with a human instead a chatbot.

So how can retailers optimize these programs to capitalize on their potential? Realizing their application in driving in-store and online traffic is a good start — fine tuning them to service their particular business needs will take them to the next level. Below are a few specific chatbot retail use cases and tips for leveraging them appropriately.

1) Revitalize the in-store experience:

It might sound unusual, but chatbots can help drive purchases in-store — even for big-ticket items like a car. One might envision chatbots are best suited for small purchases or help desks, but with a well-organized strategy — including the integration of chatbot data into existing CRM systems — marketers can gain a broader, more robust profile of their core audiences. They can then use that data to create a more relevant, personalized customer experience that drives shoppers into a retail location such as a car dealership.

And, brands can use these virtual assistants to target local shoppers via Facebook’s Newsfeed and Messenger platforms. When consumers opt-in to the chatbot dialogue, they can have questions answered quickly, schedule appointments if needed, check to see if an item (or car) is in stock (and what trim lines, colors, etc., are available) and more. Should the consumer decide to come in-store for a closer look, their initial up-front questions will already have been answered, leading to higher conversion rates and efficiency. By catering to shoppers’ personalized needs, desires and demands, brands can help drive additional traffic and secure brand loyalty due to a smooth experience.

2) Supercharge Customer Relationship Management systems

Speaking of CRMs, organizations are constantly looking for ways to gather more data on customers so they can better understand them to provide a more relevant, personalized experience. Chatbot data can easily integrate into existing CRM systems to give marketers a broader, more robust profile of their core audiences. A few benefits of chatbot/CRM incorporation include enhanced interactions with clients, reducing consumer/customer service friction, more immediate response times and internal cost reductions within call centers.

3) Catering to the “self-service” mind-set through automated and human engagement:

Consumers tend to favor self-service, and chatbots can be a first point of contact to facilitate this experience. The 24-hour, online, real-time assistance chatbots provide can remove friction between brands and consumers while allowing shoppers to learn about a product or service on their own terms. To make a chatbot “smarter,” and ensure it better meets consumer demands, bot language scripts should be customized to the business and products or services they represent.

In the case of an upset customer, chatbots aren’t typically able to handle these issues independently. If necessary, a chatbot should have the capability to forward the consumer to the appropriate person at any time during an experience. A benefit in this type of situation is that the bot may have already addressed many of the customer’s initial questions, which can then help the representative solve the issue quicker. Ultimately, the goal is for chatbots to be seen as a useful tool to enhance the customer experience — not hinder it. It’s important for businesses to create a balance between the human and automated approach to ensure customers are being serviced in an efficient manner.

4) Bots are not a means to an end:

Any successful media strategy must be thoughtfully planned, activated, then measured — it’s no different with chatbots — they can’t stand on their own. To succeed, marketers must integrate chatbots into a multichannel holistic marketing campaign to include precise targeting and appropriate messaging and delivery, followed by post-campaign analysis to ensure meaningful engagement with consumers. Following these steps, brands can build high-value experiences with targeted audiences and drive great results.

While the concept of chatbots is not entirely new, we’ve seen them explode in terms of business implementation over the past year. Looking ahead into 2018, chatbots have a bright future to become the norm, rather than the shiny object in the marketing landscape. Ultimately consumers are seeking more engaging, simpler and faster interactions with brands and chatbots can meet this demand.

That said, digital marketers have much work to do to further enhance the customer experience, support job functions and drive productivity via chatbots. When considering chatbots in omnichannel initiatives, the above use cases should be kept in mind to integrate these programs naturally and effectively.

Pehr Luedtke is the senior vice president of business development for Valassis Digital. Pehr has 15 years of retail, e-commerce and advertising experience, with success as a senior executive at large companies (eBay, Levi Strauss, and Oliver Wyman Consulting) and as the chief executive officer of two venture-backed Silicon Valley start-ups (Spotzot, acquired by Valassis and PowerReviews, acquired by Bazaarvoice).         

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