There's no getting around conversational commerce. There are too many customers and too few company personnel to be able to handle the avalanche of interactions, queries, and complaints which have come from expectations transformed over the recent few years.
All through 2016, brands have been experimenting with chatbots, trying to put artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing together to create virtual assistants that customers can interact with ‑ instead of waiting long minutes on phone lines, pressing one digit after another, and wading through menus and offers until they eventually get what they want.
If that reminds you of your bank, you're not alone. Banking via bots is very much in the offing for most banks. HDFC Bank has been using a chatbot on its customer service web page for almost a year now, but now the bank has launched a new one called OnChat - and it lives in your Facebook Messenger. It's been developed with technology from AI company Niki.ai. I asked Nitin Chugh, who heads digital for HDFC, why they chose to house their bot on Facebook Messenger and not on their own banking app.
He said, "Facebook Messenger has many thousands of bots already." He added, "It's where people spend a lot of time and we want to reach people where they are." He dismissed any worries over Facebook privacy issues saying that the social network was only providing the platform and was not a partner or involved in the data in any way. He also pointed out that what Facebook already knows about its users through what they choose to share is colossal and much beyond the information seen when interacting with OnChat. A chatbot for the main banking app was certainly in the offing, but that is a different offering, he said.
To trigger off the bot on Facebook Messenger, just type OnChat in the search field and watch it message you instantly. First, some basics. Accept the terms and conditions (which of course, no one reads), and register first-time with your mobile number with an OTP. Now you can recharge, book a cab, and make a few bill payments such as phone, electricity, or gas. Once you select the task, the bot will lead you through the steps, asking you for the amount you need to pay. When you've got that down, the bot will say hurray and ask you to choose whether you'd like to pay through Paytm, Freecharge, or online. You authorise the transaction with an OTP - and you're done.
Nitin is clear about OnChat not being everyone's preferred method of interacting with the bank. "There are different people and they have different needs," he said, " Some prefer to stick to phone interactions, or use a wallet app, or pay directly online. We are just offering one more way of carrying out certain selected transactions. The offering of interactions will expand in time and will be particularly useful to those who stay in the messaging app a lot," he said. It's been widely observed that bots work best within messenger apps as young people spend large chunks of time using them.
The HDFC chatbot is not half as chatty as you might think. Starting off stiff with "I wish to inform you that I can help with prepaid recharge...," etc., the bot takes you through the quick process of paying up. Any questions it didn't except, however, will trip it up. "I want to know what my bank balance is," I told it. Instead of saying it could help me with no such thing here, the bot just repeated the offer to recharge my phone. I asked Nitin why the bot couldn't understand such questions. "That's the learning that it has to do," he said. "As people use it, the bot will learn how is being asked and what to say in response. We will have the opportunity, through this bot, to mine a lot of data to come up with better services and offers."
While people try out bots out of sheer curiosity, the retention rate is not high. Users drift off to do things the way they always have or they may well find something easier and more suitable to their habits. But, Nitin doesn't hesitate to explain that the use of the OnChat bot is by no means forced on any user. Those who happen to find it convenient will continue using it, while others may turn to other methods offered with equal customer-centricity by the bank.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)