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In our November 9th Retail Expert Series webinar, I spoke with Microsoft’s resident bot expert and Director of Retail Solutions, Shish Shridhar, about the meteoric rise of chatbots and conversational commerce in the retail industry. We discussed why chatbots are so rapidly gaining traction with retailers and their most common use cases in the industry. Shish also shared his experiences on how to overcome common challenges, identify the right use cases, and get started. As a follow-up, I’d like to address a common concern, re-share our industry examples, and dive a bit deeper into some of the tools and capabilities offered by the Microsoft Bot Framework.

“Is chatbot technology really ready?” This is a question we hear a lot.

“Chatbots are going to be the preferred new interface between retailers and customers.”

It’s going to fundamentally change traditional retail.”

We’ve all heard that last one a few times before. We’ve been down this road before with other cutting-edge new technologies – customer service through social media platforms, RFID technology, and Bluetooth beacons to name a few.

I’m happy to say we’ve made a lot of progress on chatbot technology in the last couple of years – the latest advancements in AI and natural language processing capabilities are at a point where bots can understand our day-to-day language patterns and hold a normal conversation with us. Today’s chatbot technology really is intelligent, dynamic and capable enough to help you solve business challenges and fuel digital transformation.

Let’s take a look at two retailers that showcase great examples of areas we are seeing success with bots in the retail industry – customer service and virtual assistants.

Macy’s developed a service bot that is helping them transform their customer service experience. The Macy’s bot connects to back-end systems to access information about customers, merchandise and orders, enabling it to answer to common inquiries and even take action to solve problems/requests (i.e. automatically apply discounts to items in their shopping bag when they ask about coupons).

Dixons Carphone is using a bot, called Cami, to help customers and store employees research, find, and save products and check stock. In the past, customers who researched products online before coming to a store had to start from scratch when seeking assistance from a store associate. Cami can help bridge that gap by enabling employees to see what the customer was looking for online, and then direct them to that product or to other ones they might like equally or even more. Cami will help Dixons Carphone strengthen its relationships with customers by supporting consistent online and in-store experiences while also enabling store employees to be more effective and efficient with new tools and expanded data access.

Macy’s and Dixons Carphone provide great examples of retailers showcasing how chatbots are transforming customer experiences today. However, these implementations are complex and often times a bit out of reach for smaller budgets or experimentation.

Our experience has shown us retailers are most successful when they start by identifying use cases where questions are being repeated over and over again and the process/knowledge base is already created. A great example of this would be answering commonly asked questions from information stored in product catalogs and FAQs. This bot could be customer facing (conversational interface for frequently ask questions or product comparison) or empowering store associates (answering product questions or checking inventory). These are great use cases because their development and refinement are simpler and there are many tools already available to help automate the process. For example, the QnA Maker API in our Microsoft Bot Framework enables you to go from FAQ to bot in minutes with no coding by extracting all question and answers from existing content.

I’m really excited about the Microsoft Bot Framework. From turnkey Language Understanding capability to the Payments Request API, the Microsoft Bot Framework can help you expand and refine the capabilities of your bots – even if you’re not a coder. In addition to the helpful development capabilities, the Bot Framework enables you to extend your bot to multiple channels (whether it be Skype, Kik, WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger), enabling customers to communicate with your bot across devices and platforms. Whether you’re a developer working on an intelligent, AI-powered bot that integrates with backend systems or a business professional like myself making a conversational interface for your existing FAQ, the Microsoft Bot Framework provides a great foundation to get started.

I don’t know about you, but I completely “bot” in on a chatbot technology. We are just beginning to uncover the capabilities and use cases of chatbots. I can’t wait to see how retailers transform their businesses and engage customers with chatbots over the next couple of years. If you have any questions about this webinar or topic recommendations, please let us know via twitter.com/msretail. Thank you!

Missed our webinar? No problem. Watch the recording of our presentation to learn more about the rise of chatbots in retail – including top use cases and challenges. Click here to watch on-demand.