What Now for Chatbots in Travel?

By Scott Crawford, Vice President of Product Management at Brand Expedia.

Originally appeared on Tnooz.com

2016 was the year when chatbots emerged as a new interface for consumer interaction.

Advances in artificial intelligence technologies – such as neural networking and natural language processing – have allowed brands such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon to offer conversational products, letting consumers order products or map their journeys through speech or messaging.

As we enter 2017, chatbots will become commonplace, particularly in the travel industry. Machine learning will allow chatbots to become more and more sophisticated while customer expectations will rapidly evolve in tandem. On-demand 24-hour information and service will become commonplace.

When online travel agents democratised travel 20 years ago, they gave the power of flexibility and choice to the consumer. One could argue that the paradigm of booking a holiday online hasn’t evolved in huge leaps since then.

But chatbots represent the next seismic shift that will evolve not only the travel booking process but also the customer service experience for decades to come.

In the competitive world of travel, many in the sector are asking how they can take advantage of these new technologies. This year Expedia launched a Facebook chatbot, a new Expedia skill for Amazon Alexa and a chatbot for Skype.

As many travel brands face up to the challenges of launching their first bot, Expedia has been through that process already. Here are some of our observations.

Travel: the ultimate chatbot challenge?

There’s no escaping that booking travel is exceptionally complicated. It might not be immediately apparent how chatbots could make things simpler, given the layers of information which need to be gathering and collated in rder to make a travel purchase.

But there are plenty of areas in the travel booking process where chatbots can be implemented in order to improve the user experience.

Travel has an unusually long funnel compared with other ecommerce sectors. In the early stage, customers are unsure of the details of their trip, looking for flights or hotels in various destinations and time periods. Users further down the funnel might be business travellers or frequent fliers, who are more sure of what they’re looking for and need less guidance.

Users at each stage have very different information requirements, and so your chatbot needs to be designed to reflect multiple variables.

We see too many brands design a chatbot first and then think about its purpose to the customer afterwards.

First, think about bots in terms of solving a particular consumer problem or need.

In our experience, a chatbot interaction is more likely to result in a successful outcome for the customer in situations where the task the bot is resolving has clearly defined parameters. This means that chatbots, for the moment at least, don’t have much of a role at the top of the funnel in the research phase, as this is a highly subjective and open-ended experience for customers.

It’s difficult to design a single-purpose chatbot that will suit all consumer needs. That said, chatbot technology is getting more sophisticated by the day, and we expect to see lots of progress here over the next 12 months.

Know your limits

Chatbots are still a new technology, so it’s important to not overreach your design. Once you’ve isolated a specific stage of the funnel where a chatbot might be helpful, build a chatbot for that stage of the funnel.

Current chatbot technology is not advanced enough to allow for multipurpose bots: they need to be designed for single uses, such as collecting pieces of information from customers specifically to book a flight, or providing date ranges of available hotels matching certain criteria.

That said, new innovation is happening at a rapid pace.

Our recently launched Skype chatbot is the first bot experience on Skype to connect a traveler to a call with an agent within the platform. Customers can easily search for and make a hotel booking, or manage select elements of travel bookings, including hotel or flight confirmations or flight cancellations.

And if a traveller has an additional request that is not yet supported by the chatbot, Expedia will handoff the experience to an Expedia travel representative, or the traveller can call directly from within Skype for no charge.

For brands just starting to experiment with chatbot development, be clear and upfront about the purpose of your chatbot with customers. Define that first, provide your customers with some basic information about how to structure their queries, and a productive resolution to the problem is more likely.

As with any new technology, it is also important for the experience to feel as natural and intuitive to the user as possible.

Making the chatbot feel conversational is paramount, and small tweaks to how the bot communicates can result in big changes to customer behavior.
 
Looking to the future

There’s a vibrant and growing ecosystem of startups developing chatbots for all stages of the travel funnel. New companies such as Mezi, KimKim, and Pana have sprung up to help facilitate the booking process for flights, hotels and entertainment: once the customer has provided the initial information and search terms it becomes much easier for chatbot technology to help by automating key steps in the booking process.

For travel firms the key to capitalising on chatbots is to think small first: isolate pain-points in your booking funnel and ask yourself whether it could be resolved by a conversational function. It’s important to be honest here, as there’s a high price to pay for implementing a chatbot incorrectly.

Focus your chatbot on one or two functions at first, such as returning search results based on an input of a date period, and test and learn based on the data you gather.

The travel industry can build on what has already been achieved: there are already more than 11,000 chatbots on Facebook Messenger.

Additionally, continued mobile penetration provides the perfect context for chatbot growth.

At Expedia, we understand that you cannot constrain consumers to a particular platform; they will want to use the medium that best suits them. Many times this is across multiple devices, so the chatbot experience needs to be as sophisticated and easy-to-use as desktop.

As travel brands continue to experiment and release more bots into the ecosystem, insights will begin to show how consumers want to engage with chatbots – the better data and insights at our fingertips, our expertise will grow.

This is a viewpoint by Scott Crawford, Vice President of Product Management at Brand Expedia.

Image by Wutzkoh/BigStock.

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