Here come the chat-bots

For some star­tups, apps are mak­ing way for chat-bots, which en­gage in ‘con­ver­sa­tions’ with cus­tomers. But their suc­cess hinges on pop­u­lar mes­sen­ger ser­vices, re­ports

The Economic Times - - Saturday Feature -

Af­ter she bought her An­droid phone, Indu Ra­jagopal, who works at a construction com­pany in Chen­nai, down­loaded about 25-30 apps to add to those that were pre-in­stalled. Even­tu­ally, though, she lost in­ter­est in the apps and stopped us­ing them and soon, most of them were unin­stalled.

As mo­bile screen real es­tate gets clut­tered, some star­tups are de­vi­at­ing from the app way and pig­gy­back­ing on pop­u­lar mes­sen­ger ser­vices such as What­sApp and Face­book Mes­sen­ger that have huge user bases and are devel­op­ing ‘chat-bots’ on them to pro­vide ser­vices to cus­tomers. Chat-bots are com­puter pro­grammes that use ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to ‘con­verse’ with peo­ple us­ing text mes­sages – they an­swer queries, track con­sumer pref­er­ences and grow ‘wiser’ over time. Users don’t need to down­load an app – they can sim­ply add the startup-con­tact num­ber to their phone­book or mes­sen­ger lists and ping them for ser­vices, which the bots will at­tend to. “Apps take up mo­bile spaceaswellaslose­mind re­call quickly amongst con­sumers. Bots have the po­ten­tial to cre­ate new brand­ing chan­nels for ex­ist­ing com­pa­nies with­out the use of an app,” said Aarti Gill, co­founder of fitness startup FitCir­cle. The startup uses a mix of ex­perts and chat-bots to give users per­son­alised ad­vice on health has com­pleted over 20,0 0 0 con­sul­ta­tions since its launch in Novem­ber. “When we­launchedthe What­sApp bot, we got around 8,000 re­quests in a sin­gle day,” she said. How­ever, What­sApp later blocked the num­ber be­cause it doesn’t sup­port chat-bots. The startup has bots on other plat­forms such as TeamChat andSlackan­di­s­await­ing ap­proval to get on to Face­book Mes­sen­ger.

Gill said bots could be the best way to con­nect with a mul­ti­tude of con­sumers in­stan­ta­neously. She points to the case of Duta.in, a US­head­quar­tered startup with its In­dia of­fice in Chen­nai that uses bots via mes­sag­ing ser­vices to pro­vide con­tent ser­vices – mainly news, re­li­gion and sports – and ac­quired a few mil­lion users within eight months of launch in April last year.

“So­cial plat­forms are places where peo­ple spend time. So this way, you are where peo­ple are,” said Anand Ran­ganathan, founder of Duta.

He notes that in In­dia, data plans are used mostly for­textmes­sen­gers.“Manypeo­pleare­band­width­starved and a full-blown app is way too much data for them. They might need other ser­vices, too, but do not have ac­cess to them due to band­width con­straints. We are pro­vid­ing that ac­cess through the plat­forms they al­ready use,” he said. Duta cur­rently pro­vides its ser­vices through What­sApp, Face­book and Tele­gram.

How­ever, star­tups us­ing What­sApp face se­vere op­er­a­tional lim­i­ta­tions as the mes­sage ser­vice hasn’t ap­proved of chat-bots yet. The num­bers pro­vided by star­tups keep get­ting blocked and are changed, some­times as fre­quently as ev­ery three hours, re­sult­ing in un­pleas­ant user ex­pe­ri­ences.

Such lim­i­ta­tions led Niki.ai, a per­sonal as­sis­tant app, to de­velop bots on its own app to pro­vide users mul­ti­ple ser­vices. “Cur­rently we have bots on our own mo­bile app and that was pri­mar­ily be­cause most of th­ese ser­vices were not open to hav­ing a chat-bot. But now with Face­book’s move to open up its Mes­sen­ger to it, we would cer­tainly like to in­te­grate our chat-bot with the Mes­sen­ger app,” said Sachin Jaiswal, co­founder of the startup, which has ac­quired about 30,000 users since its launch in Novem­ber 2015. Startup con­tacts can be added to users’ phone­book/mes­sen­ger lists. Users can ping for mul­ti­ple ser­vices Uses a mix of ex­perts and chat-bots to give users per­son­alised ad­vice on health

Use chat bots to pro­vide in­ter­ac­tive ser­vices and con­tent on sports, fi­nance, en­ter­tain­ment

Per­sonal as­sis­tant app that chats with users to pro­vide them mul­ti­ple ser­vices like cab book­ing and bill pay­ment

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