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Simply defined, chat commerce enables consumers to make purchases, engage a service or get support, via their mobile phones, using the chat app of their choice. 

The global pandemic and the need for business to digitise even faster than anticipated has seen consumers turn to digital channels, including chat commerce, to engage in transactions with businesses they usually would have done at physical locations. 

At a recent webinar on Intelligent self-service: Transforming customer sales and support using digital experts hosted by local front office automation specialist CLEVVA Solutions, CLEVVA’s CEO Ryan Falkenberg, Clickatell product director Joe de Wet and chair of the Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of South Africa Johan Steyn discussed what this means for businesses.

Chat commerce, says de Wet, is the next step in the evolution of how brands engage consumers. 

“From the dotcom era when brands had to have a website, or else, to the mobile era, and the rise of social media, brands have used digital platforms to engage their customers. With chat commerce, brands can now engage customers wherever they are, on their mobile devices, with personalised experiences,” he adds. 

For the businesses using these channels, automation is a strong driver. But, says Steyn, “If you think of how customers behave when they interact with us, unless the technology enhances that engagement, we are bound to fail.”

And chatbots, to date, have largely failed to enhance customer engagement. As Falkenberg points out, “When you ask your bank’s chatbot ‘what is my current balance’, it can give you an answer. Just don’t then ask something like ‘what is the right loan product for me?’ or ‘why was my latest payment not received?’. Either you will be offered a link to some generic information, or you will be transferred to a human to help you. And this is why chatbots have got such a terrible rep within these industries. They are great for the simple stuff. But the reality is most people don’t need help with the simple stuff.” 

In customer service, he says, you need digital experts that can solve problems in context and make sure that you don’t have to keep finding humans to step in and help. 

While consumers have app fatigue – fewer are being downloaded year on year, de Wet comments, they still prefer the mobile device to interact with brands. 

“It’s just easy. They stand in a queue at the shopping centre or they’re watching the kid’s soccer match or whatever, they want to engage on the channels they’re on. WhatsApp and other enriched chat channels that we have in our pocket are there 24/7. It’s personal. And you can engage anytime.”

Wrapping this all up into one, productive experience is a new UX – conversational UX (CUX) which, says de Wet, is there to ensure that you have a natural conversation with the digital expert, rather than the more stilted engagements people are used to with chatbots.

Digital experts can work across channels, comments Falkenberg, which means that no matter where you touch the customer, you can offer them the same customer engagement experience – in context. 

“The really interesting part of chat channels,” he adds, “is that they’re asynchronous – you can stop chatting then come back to it. It’s not like a chatbot where once it’s over, it’s over. You’ve got a channel where you can literally come back an hour later and continue the conversation. The digital expert keeps that going.”

“Any business of any size should be able to utilise this technology as long as you do it in the right way and with the right kind of business case,” notes Steyn. “And [as a smaller business] you can most likely do it a lot quicker than the very big multinational conglomerates.

“We’re at a very early stage in the conversational commerce journey,” Falkenberg says, “As these engagements become powered by digital experts capable of handling more complex conversations this will ramp up.”

Take up in the financial services sector has been significant, says de Wet, indicating the potential these businesses see for chat commerce. 

The societal benefit is also substantial, agrees Steyn, Think of what we can do in education. Think of what we can do in health care. Imagine you live in a rural area and there’s no doctor in sight. But you can speak to an assistant like this and get to the bottom of why you may be sick.”