Recently, I posted a notice to sell my lawn mower on craigslist with photos and information — addressing what most buyers want to know. Pretty soon, I got a bite with lots of questions. My prospect asked when I last changed the oil and sharpened the blades and if the wheels were original. Although some of the questions were a little odd, I thought if answering would help me sell the mower, then it would be worth the time. And it was. The buyer came over, handed me cash, and the sale was complete.
The point of this story isn’t to show what a great salesperson I am. It’s to illustrate the human-to-human connection that is vital to any sales engagement. Although e-commerce is taking a bigger piece of the pie, conversion rates remain a dismal 3 percent on the desktop and 1 percent on mobile, compared to 20-30 percent in brick and mortar. Even though consumers want to do everything online, they still want the personalized, in-store or in-branch experience with a human being who can answer specific questions and help them pick the right product or service for their needs. Almost all of us have engaged with a live chat agent or even gotten on the phone before pushing that Buy button.
Facebook recently announced a bot platform that enables developers to create clever bots to help businesses answer questions and sell products through Messenger. Nifty looking bubbles, graphics, and “auto-conversations” will theoretically make engaging with businesses even cooler and easier. But it’s interesting that the company that has thrived on making it incredibly easy for people to connect through the ether is now suggesting businesses will do better by removing the human connection.
Before rushing headlong into the world of bot-engagement, let’s think about previous generations of automation that were supposed to be the answer to a better consumer experience at lower cost. The first one that comes to mind is Interactive Voice Response (IVRs). There are good cases for an IVR, like checking if a flight will leave on time, but most people hate endlessly pressing numbers on the keypad. Most of the time, I just go straight for the 0 button as that often gives me what I really want – a human being.
Another example is ATMs, which in the ’90s banks saw as the way to cut costs by reducing the number of branches and people in them. Customers were punished if they didn’t use the ATM, with some banks charging a fee to talk to a teller, or making the lines in branches painfully long and slow. It worked really well. People did indeed stop going to branches, which also meant that opportunities to cross-sell and up-sell services evaporated. The ATM as the primary customer interface was quickly abandoned.
It’s not to say that Messenger’s chatbots don’t have a place in business engagements. Like ATMS and IVRs, businesses from retailers to travel companies to financial services and even healthcare companies will find situations in which chatbots may be perfectly appropriate and successful. But you do away with the human side of customer engagement at your peril. Enabling your customers to get from that bot conversation to a knowledgeable and helpful person via your website and apps will continue to be key to improving the customer experience and sales.
So, what do you think of Facebook Messenger bots? Would it be good for your business to rely on the automated conversations? Would you buy from a company whose bot responded, “Sorry, I don’t know the answer to your question”?