Conversations happen every day. We may have them with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. And we all know what a conversation is when we have one. But have you ever stopped to think: What is conversation?
That brings up another question: How often do we have genuine conversations with businesses?
Sure, you may exchange pleasantries during checkout in a retail store. You may have more in-depth, face-to-face discussions when you’re weighing a buying decision in a physical storefront. And yes, you’ll reach out to a call center (probably as a last resort) if you have an issue you can’t solve on your own.
But do you have conversations online with businesses? Considering that there are more than four billion global Internet users and five billion mobile users, that question matters. And since approximately one million new people have come online each day since January 2018, it will matter even more in the coming years.
Right now, customer support conversations between customers and brands do happen via digital channels–including chat, email, and social media. In fact, one global study found that 66% of respondents have used three or more channels to access customer service, with most of those interactions starting online. Often, customers find that self-service portals and chatbots can be effective for simple issues. However, consumer research has found that nearly two-thirds of customers prefer person-to-person interactions for more complex service concerns.
While digital customer support enjoys wide acceptance, forward-thinking companies are exploring new opportunities to bring conversation into the pre-sales customer experience (CX). At this stage, customers often need personalized support and expert advice to make smart buying decisions. Conversational platforms are fast becoming a breakthrough opportunity for retailers who want to increase online conversions and humanize digital CX.
As brands explore new frontiers in conversation, new questions emerge. What makes an online interaction between a customer and brand an authentic conversation? Can scripted dialogues or chatbot interactions ever be truly conversational? We’ll address these essential questions and others in this post.
What is Conversation? Here’s the Answer
So what is conversation? A good place to start exploring this topic is the dictionary. Let’s take a look at the definition of “conversation,” according to Merriam Webster.
First, we can see that the primary definitions of “conversation” focus “an oral exchange” or “talk.” Another definition describes “an exchange similar to conversation” and covers technology-based conversations–such as the example given of email.
What does this mean? It’s important to note that the first definition of conversation still suggests a human-to-human talk or verbal discussion. But another definition suggests that a conversation doesn’t need to involve voiced discussions. Written interactions–via email another technology medium–can be conversations.
That leads us to another important point: The tech industry has long-embraced synonyms for conversation–including chat and dialogue. For example, the tech term “dialog box” describes a small space on a screen for user input. Users may or may not receive a response from the system after engaging with a dialog box. But this isn’t a conversation. The definition of conversation retains the idea of a human-to-human connection and two-way interaction.
So, after taking a close look at the definition of “conversation,” we can see that a conversation has three main elements:
- A conversation is human-to-human
- A conversation is an exchange
- A conversation is the sharing of “sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.”
We’ll explore each of these ideas in more detail.
A Conversation is Human-to-Human
Many companies have focused on using technology to replicate conversation. Retailers may have instituted basic two-way interactions through chatbots or virtual agents.
Despite claims that these technologies let companies have “conversations” with customers, they are not living up to the hype. While chatbots can provide 24/7 availability, customers often hit roadblocks and reach out to a human. In one recent study, many people cited bot’s inability to understand the complexity of their issues and tendency to refer to self-help FAQs as top reasons to abandon chatbot interactions.
Just how bad can chatbot conversations be? An article published by the Wharton School of Business describes a frustrating interaction that occurred when a person asked for help regarding an online form:
This writer tried using Verizon’s online “virtual agent” to get a neighbor’s phone repaired. The chatbot opened an online repair request form, but the form asked for an email address for the customer — and the customer, who is elderly, does not have email. When the chatbot was presented with a question about this hurdle, the conversation went like this:
Ask Verizon: I am designed to answer questions one sentence at a time. Please try rephrasing your question in one concise sentence.
Customer: The customer does not have an email address, so I cannot fill out the form
Ask Verizon: I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to help you. Could you tell me why this information didn’t help you?
Customer: Your answer did not match my question.
Ask Verizon: Thank you for your feedback; we will use this to improve my knowledge. Please ask a question if you would like further assistance.
How does this feel to a customer? It’s cold, impersonal, and lacks empathy. The interaction focuses on forcing the visitor to conform to the chat system’s input requirements instead of addressing the customer’s needs. And the dialogue makes it clear that the human is communicating to a machine–not another human.
Compare the feeling of that human-to-machine example with a person-to-person pre-sales conversation. In this example, a husband is seeking advice on buying clothing from one of his wife’s favorite stores. The popular online fashion boutique has a pool of on-demand brand advocates available to support customers:
After this type of human-to-human connection, the customer walks away with a positive feeling about the relationship with the brand. In this example, the husband’s questions have been answered, and he feels confident he’ll make a repeat purchase. The conversation is a win for the customer–and a win for the brand as well. Since implementing a conversational platform, the retailer has achieved dramatic results–including an 89% customer satisfaction rate and a 29% conversion rate.
A Conversation is An Exchange
By definition, a conversation is an exchange. It’s a two-way, back-and-forth discussion between two people.
Many business communications to customers are one-way. Today, marketing communications still rely on a one-to-many model, although companies are getting better at talking to segments of their customer base. Very few companies can take in customer input and respond and act on it at all–and a tiny fraction can do this in real-time.
Companies have experimented with ways to solicit customer input across several channels. Although companies can create messages that sound human, scripted interactions often fall short. Noted CX thought leader Bruce Temkin pointed this out when he shared a text communication he had with a resort:
What does this example show? The script assumed the customer would provide a numeric response only to the first query–and wasn’t equipped to handle a number and open-ended feedback. The company said “thank you” for the reasonably high score, but ignored all the shortcomings (and the positives) identified. And the customer was left feeling as if his opinions and time didn’t matter. Like other example we cited, the scripted human-to-machine interaction was cold and impersonal despite efforts to be cordial.
But a customer can very different experience when they interact with a human who listens and responds to his or her input.
How does this work? One international training leader that launched its web presence more than a decade ago and wanted to take their digital experience to the next level. The company knew that choosing a training path is a very personal decision and desired to build deeper relationships with its online customers. With these goals in mind, the brand instituted a conversational platform to connect visitors to advisors who could provide meaningful guidance on course selection.
Customers appreciated the option to connect to a “real person,” along with personalized responses from experts. And the company saw its messaging response rate grow over 30 times, and its customer satisfaction rate surpass 90%.
A Conversation Involves Sharing of Sentiments, Observations, Opinions, or Ideas
Most tech-savvy people have interacted with a chatbot at least once. And many others have used popular virtual assistants, such as Siri, Alexa, Cortana, or Google Assistant. Yes, those tools have their merits. They can quickly execute simple tasks–such as performing an online search–and offer hands-free convenience when needed.
But most of us know from experience that chatbots and virtual assistants fail at conversation. They can offer us facts and may be able to share a joke or a pun, but they don’t have their own feelings or ideas. Often, these artificial intelligence (AI) tools will respond that they “don’t understand” or “don’t know” when asked to offer an opinion or perspective on a topic.
Even the most sophisticated, award-winning chatbots in the world still don’t come close to replicating human conversation. At a competition focused on conversational intelligence, one winning entrant couldn’t sustain a genuine back-and-forth conversation or respond with empathy to human input:
And how did weak entrants perform? Their conversations were peppered with statements that showed they couldn’t keep up with the flow of communication:
It’s no surprise that chatbots aren’t capable of helping people navigate a purchase decision. Often, shoppers must evaluate several items to determine a fit with their personal lifestyles and needs. Chatbots can hunt down facts, but they can’t handle the sharing of “sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas” that are central to the definition of conversation.
But what if a brand provides an option for customers to connect with a brand ambassador while shopping? Companies can select advisors from their existing customer base–and empower these experts to share their knowledge and passion with customers. Through its ambassadors, a brand can provide an all-important human touch to the digital experience and make customers feel heard, valued, and appreciated.
Consider the example of an online marketplace with a broad product set. The retailer uses experts to provide personalized assistance to shoppers seeking video games, high-tech products, decorative items, and childcare necessities. Each month, more than 17,000 visitors have online conversations with the brand’s experts–and more than 85% express positive sentiments about their experiences.
Instead of encountering a bot that lacks empathy and provides formulaic replies, customers experience something much different. After they accept an invitation to chat, shoppers can engage with a human who can share personal experiences, advice, and authenticity (and maybe a few friendly emojis too):
Conversation Is Transforming the Digital Customer Experience
Many retailers and brands have invested heavily to support online shoppers. With the steady growth in online usage and shopping, these investments seem like a wise premise.
But there is a caveat. As more retail transactions move online and away from stores, the element of personal service delivered by customer-facing representatives is missing. Instead of feeling welcomed by a business and guided through purchases, customers are faced with information-heavy websites. Too often, companies bury access to support channels and provide zero opportunities for pre-sales engagement.
Yes, companies are doing well meeting customer needs for speed and efficiency in the digital realm. But many of these same customers still lament the loss of a human connection. In fact, research from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that 59% of people say businesses have lost touch with the human aspects of the customer experience.
Fortunately, retailers do have the opportunity to humanize their digital presence. Conversation is the key.
Through conversational platforms, brands can tap into the knowledge and passion of their current customer base and create a community of brand experts to interact with customers.
With genuine, human-to-human conversations, companies can cultivate positive emotions for customers. After an interaction, customers can feel appreciated, respected, and more confident that they have the information to make smart buying decisions.
Over time, a conversational strategy can help customers deepen their emotional engagement with brands–and that is worth more to companies than customer satisfaction alone.
And research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that emotional engagement ties to customer value. Customers who are “fully connected” emotionally to a brand are 52% more valuable than those who are highly satisfied.
Clearly, the potential financial rewards of a conversational approach are enormous. Companies must do more than focus on sleek websites and efficient–but impersonal–chatbots.
Ultimately, companies need to remember that their customers are people–with hearts, minds, and unique experiences. People matter. Their feelings and words matter.
And that’s why a human, conversational touch is emerging as the prime differentiator for brands that aspire to CX excellence.
Want to learn more about how conversation can be used to re-define CX excellence? Check out our blog post on bridging the gap between in-store and online experiences with conversation.