DTC Era   /   October 8, 2019

DTC brands are using hybrid chatbots for customer service

A new chatbot wave has arrived, and it’s different than the one before.

A few years ago, technology like chatbots were all the rage. Brands like Everlane and Zulily rode a technology trend: AI-powered chat functions on platforms like Facebook Messenger. Then, chatbots fizzled out. This was due to a few reasons — most importantly, that software is still unable to anticipate and correctly (and conversationally) answer customer inquiries; more often than not, people talking with a chatbot felt like they were talking to a computerized wall.

Now, more hybrid technologies — which use AI to inform answers, but still have another human available to help with more complicated inquiries — have become more popular. And instead of living on platforms like Facebook, they’re on the brand websites themselves. These solutions are especially popular with digitally native brands, which rely on more personalized customer interactions, figuring out a seamless way to handle customer service inquiries at scale, instant message technology that’s complemented with some AI bot functionality has become a more popular choice.

These companies receive a bunch of inbound website traffic because of the very nature of the direct-to-consumer business, and have found the increasing need to have a chat interface to answer customer questions. But instead of relying on the old AI-only models, they are using a variety of technology to better and more personally answer inquiries and lead clients on their purchase journey.

For a DTC brand like Brooklinen, seamless customer service interactions are of the utmost importance. According to Jack Lorentzen, a customer experience manager for the bedding brand, the most important aspect of live chat is that customers are never talking to voiceless machines. “All human beings are on the other end,” he said.

To handle all the inbounds, Brooklinen uses an AI solution called Solvvy, to “sit in front of chat or email,” explained Lorentzen. The technology is able to filter through people’s requests to see if it can automatically surface a response without adding a human into the mix.

The mix of technology, he said, has made for an ideal digital customer service experience. The Solvvy interface helps cut down superfluous requests — on a recent high-volume day, customers began 277 live chats and the AI mitigated ten of them — but the intent isn’t to stop communication. If the issue isn’t easily and cleanly answered with the AI screening, then a human is added to the mix.

A recent report performed by Simplr looked into 500 brands’ customer service practices. They sent “secret shoppers” to test out the customer service channels and then rated them on a 100-point rubric. While many sent inquiries directly to email, 11% had a chat functionality that connected customers with another human. And about half of those used “bot-interaction” to help direct the customer to either a human or a more automated solution, if possible.

“Chat is definitely our customer’s favorite channel,” said Lorentzen (although email remains the highest in volume). Some return customers use Brooklinen’s instant message platform more than five times a month. Sometimes they have questions about a return, other times they want to learn more about a new product. “[Chat] really encourages a lot of communication,” he said. He currently has a team of around 17 employees on both the east and west coast who handle the inbound inquiries — and has begun incorporating an outside customer service software provider into the mix too.

Custom framing company Framebridge also leans on a mixed technology approach for customer service. It has AI software scan conversations and direct conversations toward helpful information, yet is still centered around a human-based customer service interaction.

The brand has found that customers often have more of a need for quick customer service inquiries than traditional online retails. The purchase process, said vp of marketing Matt Carrington, “requires a lot of smaller decisions.” This includes the size of the product, the style and the type of wood treatment. Framebridge used to do most of the customer service via email, but find that the overall process became much smoother when it implemented a chat function on the website.

What’s more, customers have come to expect quick answers to questions on the website itself — this is especially the case when Framebridge runs big ad campaigns. “We could run a streaming TV campaign or linear TV campaign and we know that will drive traffic to our site,” said Carrington. “A lot of our traffic is second-screen and chat is going to win out in that scenario.” Before, brands felt they needed to meet customers on platforms like Facebook — now the best way is to try to keep it on their own properties.

For Carrington, introducing a layer of technology atop the chat functions makes the process more streamlined for customers — as well as better for the workers on the other end. “It puts them in a better position to succeed,” he said, because the software Framebridge uses will provide the correct information necessary for the inquiry at hand.

Chat is by no means perfect — and for many brands a hindrance. According to the Simplr survey, companies using live chat face a delicate tightrope. Of the 500 brands they rated, the majority of the ones with live chat delivered a “poorer experience.” “Not only does the chat bubble need to be “on,” there must be sufficient staffing to back up the chatbot,” the report said. “Basic machine learning is not yet sophisticated enough to handle second order questions.”

Lorentzen echoed these findings. Brooklinen has talked to other DTC brands like Glossier, he said, and they’ve generally concurred on best UX practices. “I think the trend right now is tapping lightly into AI,” he said. But, at the end of the day, for brands that rely on a personal relationship with customers, the entire process can’t be stiff and automated.

Customers, said Lorentzen, “want to hear from the people that are actually working at the businesses.”

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