Does Your Online Store Need A Chatbot?

Even in today’s world, many people are still wary about automation — but not those in the ecommerce industry. Having extensively reaped the benefits of technological innovations already, and with the operational flexibility to consider anything that will raise profits, they’ve been steadily turning the frivolous chatbot into a powerful conversion tool.

But not every tool is suited for every business, so I can understand why you might be uncertain about whether chatbot technology is something you should consider for your online store. Maybe it has always seemed too complex to set up and maintain, or too awkward to integrate with your existing systems.

Well, let’s clear things up! In this piece, we’re going to look at what exactly a chatbot has to offer, and set out the information you need to figure out whether you want one.

“What does a chatbot look like today?”

When you think of a chatbot, what springs to mind? Perhaps you think about nonsensical circular conversations with bots like Eliza, seeing questions met with questions in a futile attempt to beat the Turing test. But that kind of chatbot is very much in the rear mirror now.

Today’s chatbots aren’t gimmicks built to feign human responsiveness, but target-built tools with specific purposes. Instead of trying to generate ad-hoc replies to string exchanges along, they draw from pools of preset constructions and live datastreams to give meaningful and coherent replies to supported queries.

“What makes chatbots suitable for ecommerce?”

In the ecommerce world, chatbot technology has proven itself as the ideal fit for conversational commerce — essentially an effort to move the sales process away from its dedicated corner and into the realm of conversation (where users spend far more of their time and have their guards down). An ecommerce chatbot essentially fills the role of an in-store assistant, guiding the prospective customer in their journey, making sure they don’t get lost, and pushing them towards particular actions.

While a chatbot still can’t hope to understand communicative nuance in the way that a person can (though Natural Language Processing has come a long way very quickly), it offers several distinct advantages that more than make up for that:

  • It doesn’t need to be paid, only needing electricity and maintenance.
  • It doesn’t get sick, need time off, or get angry with people.
  • It can conveniently reach people in various online channels.
  • It can seamlessly bring systems together, taking orders and giving delivery updates.

While a person could technically operate as a sales assistant through a digital channel, most buyers wouldn’t be comfortable with it. They want to feel free when using their online messaging systems, and there’s a big difference between allowing an automated chatbot in your contacts list and allowing an actual person you don’t know anything about.

“How hard is it to configure a chatbot?”

Thankfully, much easier than you might think. While you can make a chatbot as complex as you want (requiring massive investment), it shouldn’t prove all that expensive or awkward to set up a basic chatbot that can handle a solid range of ecommerce actions. There are two reasons for this:

  • There are dedicated chatbot developers that can handle the work relatively cheaply
  • There are off-the-shelf chatbots you can install and tweak at low cost

As noted earlier, automation has been massively important for the ecommerce industry in general, and even automation itself can be automated. Frameworks like Zebo or SnatchBot let you get started for free and offer extensive integration options that should suit whatever software packages you use.

Alternatively, you can find an add-on, extension or plugin for your retail CMS. Assuming you use a standard system, whether hosted (e.g. Shopify, PrestaShop, etc.) or self-hosted (e.g. WooCommerce, Magento etc.), you’ll invariably be able to find free or cheap options for linking your store functionality to Facebook Messenger (at a minimum).

“Is a chatbot a good choice for my business?”

If you can spare a little bit of time to do some experimentation, I’d say the answer is a resounding “yes” unless you have the time, the inclination, and a very compelling reason to provide a manual live-chat service — if you sell high-end art, for instance, then a chatbot would send the wrong message. Otherwise, it’s an option that’s only going to get stronger and more robust as time goes by.

And consider that use of a chatbot isn’t inherently limited to linking your store to your customers. Shopify made a big splash in 2016 by acquiring the Kit chatbot platform and offering it as a free add-on to make its inexpensive eshopping package more appealing, and it works through enabling store runners to update products, run sales and carry out other management actions directly from a Messenger window.

As such, you can benefit from a chatbot whether you’re dealing with customers at the front-end of your store or carrying out admin responsibilities at the back-end. And with the low barrier to entry, why wouldn’t you want to try that?

So, does your online store NEED a chatbot? Well, no — you’ll survive without it — but it’s pretty clear where the wind is blowing in the ecommerce industry, and if you don’t fight hard now to embrace automation however you can, you’ll find your store struggling to compete following a few more years of rapid progress.

Get started today, test chatbots with your audience, and figure out how you can use them to support your business model. You’ll be glad you did.

Patrick Foster is a writer and ecommerce expert from Ecommerce Tips — a new ecommerce blog that shares the latest insights from the sector, spanning everything from business growth hacks, to product development. Check out the latest posts on Twitter @myecommercetips.