“I don’t speak any English,” Akemi Tsunagawa thought to herself when she once tried to order a caramel frappucc ino somewhere near Washington, and the American staff had no idea what she was on about. Ultimately, she ended up with a hot chocolate which left her with a distinctly helpless aftertaste. At the time, Tsunagawa was just 18 years old. She thought through the problem of being abroad without any language skills. All the way to its bitterest conclusion. “I could possibly die,” she surmised.

This is the story that the now 33-year-old entrepreneur, founder and CEO of the first AI chatbot service  told German magazine Business Punk in a recent interview. The Japanese native is breaking new ground with one of the fastest-growing chatbot start-ups in the travel industry, Bespoke Inc.

Virtual assistants, bots, chatbots and whatever else you want to call them: although the underlying technology has been around for quite some time, these words are only now entering the mainstream as companies finally starting to pick up on just how amazing these tools can be – whatever the industry.

But how are these tools helping bricks-and-mortar retailers?

When communicating with companies, customers want any issues they might have to be cleared up quickly, and with minimal effort on their p art. And that is where lots of companies and institutions are still falling short. While in most cases the requisite information is available somewhere at the company, it somehow fails to find its way through to customers quickly and efficiently. Often, the onus is on them to put in the legwork and look for it themselves, and keep on trying until they finally find the person or department that can help them.

But this is where chatbots come into their own. They can help companies to deploy their staff more efficiently and take them a step closer to achieving that most elusive of goals: digital transformation.

But before we get to that, let’s back up a second and talk about what chatbots are

A chatbot is a technical dialogue system that users can communicate with by inputting text or voice commands. The name itself is a portmanteau of the words “chat” and “robot”.

Companies are using them as an additional customer interface. They answer questions, share product details, offer support with issues and handle other concerns. To help them answer questions, they draw on programmed routines, databases, internet research and artificial intelligence (AI). Avatars with personalities and names such as Sam and Klara give the chatbots a distinctive identity. They give organisations a way to add a compelling identity to their brands and share authentic, creative and inspiring stories with their target audiences. In the business, it’s a tactic known as storytelling.

How can chatbots help retailers?

They help businesses to present information to their customers more clearly, while helping staff to focus on their core duties instead. And they help them move towards the digital transformation by collecting, codifying and storing data for analysis.They also help retailers to reach out to young and tech-savvy people, ideally by engaging them in conversation directly.

It’s certainly another way for retailers to transform the point of sale into a point of experience.

The Kim: Kitchen Intelligence by Maggi virtual partner is a case in point. The cooking assistant is a source of inspiration with its different dishes and can even respond to specific nutritional requests. With the line of communication left open, chefs can ask questions directly when cooking. Looking at it another way, it represents more of a smartphone-based digital cooking course – a welcome alternative in these days of social distancing.

The last word

Particularly in times of crisis, information gaps need to be filled and customers want to get their hands on details – and entertainment – as quickly and easily as possible Companies have no option but to engage with the latest digitalisation trends. Chatbots are easy to use. They understand and can use human language and leave users with the feeling that they are holding a natural conversation, without exposure to less accessible interfaces such as forms and websites. And for this reason alone, chatbots represent a major opportunity – for customers and businesses alike