Procurement tech guru Bertrand Maltaverne explores the benefits, limitations and pitfalls of chatbots in procurement – with some animated examples!
Digital assistants are ubiquitous. We talk to them (Siri, Alexa, Cortana, etc.). We chat with them (Twitter, Facebook Messenger, Skype, WeChat, etc.). They are in our phones, in our computers, and even in our homes. Now they are also making their way into our offices!
Procurement professionals need to start taking notice, because chatbots present a valuable and unique opportunity to provide better services and experiences for internal customers and suppliers. They can also support and assist procurement professionals with their daily activities, becoming virtual colleagues or consultants.
Of course, as with any new piece of technology, it is important not to succumb to the hype and to be aware of the technology’s limitations and constraints before deploying bots everywhere.
Value = Outcomes AND Experiences
The term “Conversational Commerce” was coined by Chris Messina in 2015. In his article, he focused on how messaging apps bring the point of sale to you. He first introduced the idea of assistants that people could interact with to buy things from a company. This is precisely what Amazon did and has popularized with Echo (the hardware) and Alexa (the AI-based assistant that “lives” inside Echo).
The idea of voice or text-based interactions with a bot can be extended to much more than B2C and to “buying things”. The value proposition of such technology is to digitise interactions and conversations while also making technology more accessible.
Here are some of the benefits:
- Gains in efficiency and effectiveness because of tailored and context-aware interactions. Chatbots remember everything, they know where you are, and can tap into data from all your other applications.
- Less time and effort needed to learn how to use Procurement technology: conversations replace graphical user interfaces (everybody knows how to type or speak; no need to use explicit and codified instructions).
- Interoperability and accessibility: users chat in the application or channel they prefer (SMS, Instant Messaging, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Alexa, Twitter, etc.). All bots leverage one common robust back-end system that processes and interprets natural language.
All in all, chatbots contribute to the creation of omni-channel and replicable but unique user experiences for stakeholders, suppliers, and for the Procurement teams themselves. Improving experiences is one of the pillars of the digital transformation of Procurement. In addition to delivering business benefits (savings, risk reduction, innovation, growth, etc.), it contributes to making procurement a supplier/customer/function of choice.
“Every time [customers] interact with a product, a service, a person, or an automated system, they judge how well the interaction helped them achieve their goals, how much effort they had to invest in the interaction, and how much they enjoyed the interaction.” Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business by Harley Manning, Josh Bernoff, and Kerry Bodine
Use Case 1: Guided Buying (Chatbot as an Admin.)
This is a use case that is very close to B2C: a Procurement assistant is deployed to handle demands from the rest of the organisation in order to replace or “augment” traditional eProcurement solutions. Requesters interact with a bot that proposes solutions based on:
- the needs identified during the conversation,
- the Procurement strategy (preferred suppliers, preferred items, contracts in place),
- other factors (purchasing history, real-time availability of products, context, etc.).
The approval process also happens via chat. If available, the chatbot adds the approver to the conversation, creating a group chat. Or, the Procurement Assistant opens a new one-to-one conversation with the relevant approver. Approvers can then ask the chatbot how much of the budget is left and then immediately approve/decline the request without leaving the chat. The same can happen for other process steps (order confirmations, goods receipts,etc.). The assistant initiates discussions to ensure the process is compliant and efficient.
Use Case 2: Operational Support (Chatbot As a Colleague/Consultant)
Chatbots can also be invaluable assistants in operational support. The most straightforward and immediate application: query management. A chatbot can become the single point of contact for internal and external queries about purchase orders, invoices, and much more. Several companies are already successfully using such capabilities in their Procurement portals to provide quick answers to a vast amount of queries, which leaves their teams with time to focus on more complex requests and value-adding tasks.
It can even go further as the following scenario demonstrates:
Now, let’s compare what happened above with a scenario in the context of siloed organisations and where such technology wasn’t used. The purchaser would probably have learned about the earthquake on his way to work while checking the news on his smartphone. He would only have been able to assess the situation and prepare contingency plans once he arrived at work, losing valuable time. In may organisations this would take hours or even days because access to information is spread across multiple systems. This would result in a very different reaction time compared to the example above, where the cognitive agent reacted almost immediately after the event and prepared recommendations during the night.
Pitfalls and limitations
Relying on conversations instead of graphical user interfaces has many benefits, especially for the mobile worker or casual user. However, there are limitations and challenges.
Voice-based conversations are the most natural ones and are also the most challenging from a technological perspective, especially in a B2B context. This is due, in part, to the international nature of business. For example, names of people or companies are not familiar words that a chatbot can quickly recognise, and to make things worse, they are often not in the same language as the one used to converse with the bot.
In addition to technical challenges like these that will likely be solved someday, there is a more human challenge: the conversational paradox. It explains why chatbots are still not widely used. The paradox is that something very natural (a conversation) is done with another unusual counterpart (a machine), which turns the experience into a very unnatural one. So, when asking a chatbot something, the first questions people are confronted with are:
- what instructions can “it” understand?
- what words should I use to make sure I will be understood?
This represents both a significant barrier to usage and a risk for adoption. It is therefore important to design and deploy chatbots with that in mind and:
- not to use them as the only communication channel (it should be one among many others),
- not to oversell the technology as being human-like (it inflates expectations and is a guarantee for failure),
- to provide cues and guidance (like the menus/lists in the examples above)
- to have a smooth and almost transparent hand-over to a real person if the machine fails to understand a user.
“By 2020, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen.” –Gartner
Conversational user interfaces are still a novelty, especially in B2B. However, they will become more widely used as technology makes further progress and people get more used to it. So, for Procurement, now is the time to investigate their potential as an additional way to provide a streamlined and personalized user experience both inside and outside of the function.
In addition to delivering the right outcomes, experiences are also a crucial component of the value that the rest of the organisation gets from Procurement. Customer satisfaction is at stake.
The implementation of chatbots, like any other technology, has to be pragmatic, defined by clear use cases, and should not be viewed as a solution in itself. Chatbots will not solve all of an organisation’s problems, , but they can be used as a means to an end!
Time to learn how to say: “Hey, Procurement…”