SINGAPORE: With the ability to do tasks such as answering frequently asked questions and accepting orders, chatbots driven by artificial intelligence are being deployed by some local retailers to the frontline of customer service.
One such retailer is Goldheart Jewelry, which rolled out its virtual assistant last month.
Available on Facebook Messenger, Bling the chatbot handles queries ranging from branch locations and ongoing promotions to facts on jewellery. Automated replies are usually menu buttons – a feature that Facebook rolled out to make chatbots on its Messenger platform easier to navigate – but when a user chooses to strike up a conversation, the chatbot sometimes reciprocates with text messages complete with emoji.
Bling is also equipped with a reminder feature that recommends gift suggestions when a date entered by the user is round the corner.
Goldheart’s brand manager Iris Tan said the chatbot is part of the jeweller’s “long-term strategy” to diversify its customer base. While it has an online boutique and maintains a presence on social media, the homegrown brand wanted a new strategy to attract millennials who may feel that the brand remains out of reach.
Bling also serves as a 24/7 retail assistant, with an expertise in proposal rings. Responses are modelled after the common questions that customers have, explained Ms Tan.
“We wanted Bling to be a useful shopping assistant which in the case of proposal rings, are the men. For them, the first question is usually ‘how much?’ but they don’t know that different combinations of the 4Cs (colour, clarity, cut and carat) mean different prices so Bling is here to give an explanation.”
THE NEXT TALK OF THE TOWN?
With improvements in technology enabling virtual assistants to simulate increasingly natural human conversations, it is not surprising that local retailers are jumping on the chatbot bandwagon – a trend that has been dominated by banks, insurers and airlines so far.
Even the Government has a chatbot on its Gov.sg Facebook page that provides updates on Government news and announcements.
Among retailers, there is Sparkle, a nine-month-old chatbot built within the app of CapitaLand’s rewards programme Capitastar. Through the bot, users can enjoy virtual concierge services such as directory assistance, and participate in campaigns to earn points when they key in thematic codewords.
Describing chatbots as an “emerging technology”, Mr Ervin Yeo, head of CapitaStar, said the company plans to continue its experiment through collaborations with retail tenants.
Also embracing the trend is Philips Lighting, the world's largest maker of lights, which unveiled its first chatbot worldwide on its Singapore Facebook page in April.
Available round-the-clock, the chatbot doubles up as a customer service officer and an e-commerce platform, and responds to all users’ queries within two seconds. Only 10 per cent of all queries require a human representative to step in, said Mr Alok Ghose, the managing director for Singapore, Malaysia and export markets.
To get the bot up and going, Philips Lighting teamed up with Singapore start-up AiChat and the development process took one month. However, it declined to reveal how much it invested.
“Chatbots present a major opportunity to retailers,” said Mr Ghose. “With the increase in operating costs and growing competition in e-commerce, we saw the need to leverage on different retail strategies to bring newer, better and more convenient experiences to today’s shoppers.”
Thus far, the chatbot has been a boost to the company’s online customer engagement efforts. “On average, 20 per cent of users continue to use our chatbot within the next 24 hours after their first message. Overall, the total number of exchanged messages have also doubled,” Mr Ghose added.
A handful of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have also joined the chatbot race.
Bridal shop La Belle Couture, for one, invested S$40,000 to build an AI virtual assistant of its own. Despite lacking the financial muscle of larger businesses, owner Teo Peiru said the investment was an essential one to solve the nagging problem of missing calls from customers, especially those who call outside of business hours. Maintaining the live-chat function on its website also proved to be a challenge for the lean team.
All these translate into lost business opportunities, Ms Teo said.
“When customers go out looking for quotations, they usually look at four to five vendors at the same time so whoever replies first usually gets to seal the deal,” she added. “With customers expecting instant responses, you give a good impression when you are prompt.”
Since the roll-out of its Facebook chatbot earlier this year, the SME has managed to improve its conversion rate of online enquiries into actual customers from 10 per cent to at least 30 per cent. It has also been a boon for productivity, Ms Teo said.
“My team no longer needs to be on standby all the time. They are able to segment their time for certain jobs, or monitor the chatbot and jump in only when there’s a need to.”
Moving forward, La Belle Couture plans to extend the chatbot to its website and other messaging platforms. “Our customers will have more avenues to talk to us but for us, it’s still one chatbot.”
WATCH OUT FOR CYBERSECURITY RISKS
While businesses laud the benefits of these interactive messaging bots that harness advances in artificial intelligence, one expert cautioned of possible security risks.
Said Check Point Software Technologies’ chief strategist Tony Jarvis: “There’s so much to be gained for businesses in terms of differentiating themselves and enhancing customer interactions with chatbots. But we need to be mindful that attackers tend to gravitate to these new technologies because it is brand new and typically, a lot of security hasn’t been thought through.”
Businesses will need to pay attention to the handling and storage of chatbot data, as well as being on guard against phishing where chatbot conversations get hijacked by hackers and users are tricked into divulging personal information.
For businesses making their forays into chatbots, the Facebook Messenger platform may be a “better idea” given that the social media giant has its own security defences such as end-to-end encryption and user authentication, Mr Jarvis added.
But businesses that Channel NewsAsia spoke to said they already have safeguards in place.
“It is our utmost commitment to protect our customers’ data privacy,” said Mr Ghose from Philips Lighting. “Behind the scenes, our team performs daily maintenance on the system to ensure that no irregular behaviour or security lapse goes unchecked.”
For La Belle Couture, while it may not have the in-house expertise of a large corporation, it has deployed its chatbot on encrypted channels and teamed up with an external cybersecurity firm. Internally, it practices “common sense” cyber hygiene practices like changing passwords frequently and storing its data in a secured cloud-based server, said Ms Teo.
“WHO IS MY MOTHER?”
But apart from hackers, businesses are also watching out for users who chat up their bots given instances when the self-learning technical capabilities of these chatbots go awry.
For instance, Microsoft’s Twitter bot Tay ended up spewing abuse to followers within a matter of hours as it repeated back insults hurled its way by other Twitter users. Meanwhile, IKEA pulled the plug on its virtual assistant in 2016 citing “stupid questions” from users, with nearly half being sex-related, according to a BBC report.
To prevent this, La Belle Couture has disabled the “small-talk” function in its chatbot.
Other companies said they welcome users to engage with its bots conversationally. However, to avoid any misuse, Philips Lighting said its chatbot will “redirect the conversation to more relevant or appropriate topics.”
Over at Goldheart, Bling received its fair share of random messages, including “Who is my mother?” and “My girlfriend just left me”, within the first week of its launch.
Despite that, Ms Tan said data collected thus far from the chatbot has been “healthy” as the majority of the users remain “serious consumers”. But Bling, which may have transaction capabilities added to it in the future, remains a work in progress.
“Even though Bling replied ‘Oops, can you give me more details?’ to the user who typed “My girlfriend just left me”, she’s actually not smart enough for these yet. For example, if someone asks her for the price of a certain product that is not a proposal ring, she may direct the user to a human representative because she doesn’t have that rich amount of data in her yet.”
Ms Tan added: “Chatbot is not like a mobile app that you can update at certain intervals. We need to keep inputting data to help her grow; it’s a continuous process but we will get there.”