Apple’s iOS 11 update will support Business Chat, a chat capability on Apple iMessage for companies such as retailers to use to communicate more directly with their customers, Apple announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference on Friday.
During the live-streamed announcement, the company demonstrated how consumers could use Business Chat either from Apple’s Safari browser, Siri virtual assistant or other Apple applications to talk via text message directly with a business that supports the feature.
Apple Business Chat will be integrated with customer service systems that businesses commonly use from companies such as Salesforce, Nuance, LivePerson and Genesys, Apple said.
Chatbots were one of the hottest emerging technology solutions of 2016, giving businesses such as retailers a largely automated way to connect with their customers on messaging services such as Facebook Messenger. Facebook’s support of chatbots has yielded some interesting and useful applications from retailers and others. Sephora, for example, has used the chatbot format effectively with its Sephora Virtual Artist and Reservation Assistant tools.
However, in recent months, chatbots have been the target of much more criticism. The Vibes Mobile Consumer Report, for example, found that relatively few customers actually have engaged with chatbots, and companies like mode.ai have told Retail Dive that early-generation chatbots have lacked the artificial intelligence and rich feature set that would make them truly useful to customers, something Facebook's Chat Extensions was in part designed to address.
Apple’s announcement of Business Chat is definitely a shot across the bow of Facebook Messenger’s chatbot platform, but it’s also very different and potentially more valuable for a retailer that wants to encourage frequent and direct customer interactions. Conversations in Business Chat are initiated by users and appear to be person-to-person chats, so there are no chatbots involved, at least at the outset (Apple left open the possibility that Business Chat also could be integrated with chatbots.) In addition to all this, the chats are encrypted.
Nuance is one of the Apple partners that will help bring Business Chat to retailers.The capability can be used through Nuance's Nina AI-based virtual assistant and the Nuance Digital Customer Engagement Platform. Robert Weideman, executive vice president and general manager, Enterprise Division, Nuance, told Retail Dive via e-mail that "the ability to start a chat session with businesses using Messages is positioned to turn message-based customer service into the dominant way consumers engage with brands."