In China, Bots Are Chatty Online Shop Assistants

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Apple's chat bot on Tmall.
Apple's chat bot on Tmall. Credit: via Tmall

China, the world's biggest ecommerce market, knows what its consumers want: super-friendly customer service. That's why its ubiquitous chatbots, working in tandem with real customer services agents to drive sales online, are a chipper lot. On Nike's and Apple's shops on Alibaba Group ecommerce platform Tmall, chat bots say "Hello," out themselves as robots and offer to answer questions or pass customers on to a human.

Apple's smart assistant introduces itself as TIMI and then adds, "I serve you wholeheartedly!" (Incidentally, it says it doesn't know when the iPhone 8 is coming out.)

China's emphasis on real-time customer service is something that sets it apart from the West. It was a factor in Alibaba Group's ability to make China comfortable with ecommerce, and a reason why Alibaba beat out eBay in the early days of online shopping in China, said Michael Zakkour, VP of the China and Asia Pacific practice at consulting firm Tompkins International.

Consumers loving to chat is rooted in Chinese shopping traditions "where you're at the market, face-to-face with the seller, weighing the fruit, wondering, 'Can I trust you? Can I go to you for litchis every Friday?'" Zakkour said. China has always had "a highly engaged, relationship-based form of commerce in China," he said.

For the Chinese, bots are a natural extension of customer service agents. They can field the most common questions on a daily basis. They become even more important when traffic spikes during the huge ecommerce sales events that happen in China. On Alibaba's Singles Day every Nov. 11, consumers have made as many as 175,000 transactions a second.

Alibaba developed a customizable chatbot store concierge that it offers free to brands and merchants; it's called dian xiao mi, or "little shop bee." If a customer interacting with a clothing brand uploads a photo of a t-shirt, the bot can suggest pants to match. Someone else could provide his height and weight to get the bot's suggested sizing.

Nine brands -- including Nike, Apple and big Chinese electronics brands such as Vivo, Xiaomi and Huawei Honor -- used it in beta on last year's Singles Day. Over 100,000 merchants are now using it, according to Alibaba.

China's chatbots "may not be as ambitious as those created by some of the big brands in the West, but I'd argue they're much more effective and driving real business value," said Tom Birtwhistle, senior manager for digital strategy at PwC China. "Unlike in the West, customer service in China is a pre-, during- and post-purchase activity. Anything that helps make this experience more efficient for online merchants is hugely valuable."

The technology is saving brands money already. Jeff Zhang, Alibaba's chief technology officer, said in June that brands using its store concierges have been able to reduce customer service headcount by 50%. Depending on your point of view, that's impressive efficiency or a scary reminder of the robot revolution.

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