Talking Chat: Expert Insights from Ellen Dunne, Senior Product Lead at Shopify

By
Colleen McNamara
December 14, 2020

Having worked at the intersection of design, marketing and product through most of her career - previously as Chief Product Officer at Kit, acquired by Shopify in 2016 - Ellen’s expertise in building technology that improves the customer experience has been fundamental to the development of Shopify’s chat app, Ping. 

Ping is available to Shopify’s 1M+ merchants globally, helping solopreneurs and small to medium-size merchants connect with their customers via chat. Here, Ellen talks about the evolution of chat and how customers, Shopify ecommerce merchants are finding their live chat and automation groove and taking their customer experiences to the next level. 

How the pandemic changed the conversation about chat at Shopify 

Before COVID-19, many Shopify merchants assessed their need for chat through a simple cost-benefit analysis: will this solve my immediate challenges today, without adding extra strain to my team or my budget?

Having run multiple focus groups at Shopify’s Merchant Centre at our San Francisco office, we were still working on convincing business owners of the time-saving benefits of chat. I’d often hear our merchants say, “I can’t install chat on my website because I won’t be able to deal with a large volume of messages! I don’t have enough time as it is!”

This thinking - like many other things - was turned on its head when the pandemic took hold of the world this spring.

COVID-19 has meant more consumers staying at home, shopping online and discovering new brands, while retailers have made a fast pivot to build out their presence online.  

During the COVID period, we’ve seen chat volume increase 85%. As a result, merchant sales revenue attributed to chat increased 200%. This growth was nowhere near what we predicted in our initial forecasting, and we expect the trend to continue through the busy holiday season and beyond.

This growth was nowhere near what we predicted in our initial forecasting, and we expect the trend to continue through the busy holiday season and beyond.

Many of our merchants are discovering first-hand how effective conversational commerce can be and just how many of the conversations they’re having are high-value and lead to a sale.

As a product team, we have been laser focused on chat as a way for our merchants to convert more visitors to purchasers, to drive more profit — not more cost. In fact, customers who chat with a store are 70% more likely to make a purchase. Chat proves an essential part of any merchants’ conversion optimization strategy. 

The intense growth that we’ve seen for chat within Shopify hasn’t slowed. Those who installed the chat at the outset of the pandemic are seeing how powerful it is as a selling tool - and next on their radar is finding out how to double down, and make the most out of it with add-on features. 

Automation, AI and consumers coming around to the conversation 

Another barrier of entry to chat has been the simple fact that creating a great chatbot is hard. 

A couple of years ago, if you asked consumers if they’d rather talk to a human or a chatbot, the answer would almost always be: talk to a human.

But chatbots like Heyday have evolved so much over the past year and a half. Solution providers are using the early learnings of chat 1.0 to create richer, more honest, and seamless experiences which have led to increased adoption. 

Now, consumers have come full circle on their chatbot acceptance, and the fact that Shopify has seen tens of millions of conversations so far is proof of that.

The advancements of AI to accurately detect customer intent, understand scenarios, and then elegantly direct certain inquiries to the right humans has grown by leaps and bounds in comparison to earlier versions of chatbots. 

Now, consumers have come full circle on their chatbot acceptance, and the fact that Shopify has seen tens of millions of conversations so far is proof of that.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) has enabled businesses to speak in a way that feels human and relevant, fostering deeper trust in chat as a feasible extension of a sales or support agent. 

The added bonus to businesses, of course, is the fact that consumers are getting immediate access to the information they need (like order tracking, store hours and product questions), while store staff gets more time to focus on developing relationships and boosting sales. 

Using chat for high-value purchases: making video mainstream 

This year, one of the most interesting chat barriers that has been challenged during the pandemic is its image.

Chatbots were perceived as a "cheap" experience that wasn't fit for retailers that sell big-ticket items. 

But, like everyone in the era COVID, these merchants needed to find a way to adapt, answer customer inquiries at scale, and find nuanced ways to replicate some of the magic that happens in-store. 

BenchMade Modern, a Shopify merchant in the furniture space, has seen incredible results by using video chat to respond to customers' questions. Through virtual shopping, furniture sellers are able to answer complex inquiries around: 

  • Their manufacturing process and quality 
  • Fabrics, colours, and textures 
  • Styles and custom sizing
  • Delivery process and services 

In this scenario, merchants can quickly build trust and give buyers confidence towards their high-value purchase, while giving a dose of personalization and face-to-face interaction, too. 

Merchants needed to find a way to adapt, answer customer inquiries at scale, and find nuanced ways to replicate some of the magic that happens in-store. 

BenchMade Modern founder Edgar Blazona has also noticed that the customers they interact with on video chat become brand advocates, referring new customers through word of mouth. 

Expect to see video chat and virtual shopping become more and more prominent across the board for merchants of all sizes using Shopify to run their online and physical stores.

The next topics of the chat conversation: looking to 2021, as uncertain as it might be  

The value of chat as a way to drive meaningful engagements that lead to sales is no longer in question.

So while merchants ask, “how can I double down on this investment?” chatbot providers will be asking, “how can we augment our Machine Learning to provide even richer experiences at scale?” 

This will cascade down to the following three categories: teams, tech, and trust.

Team

Merchants will bolster their teams with dedicated Customer Service agents to handle specific requests that are passed over from the chatbot. 

Seamlessly routing customers to sales and support representatives who specialize in a certain department, product type, or service will be the gold standard of chat. Passing key information (like the products they're looking for) will provide merchants with context they can use to serve shoppers more effectively.

Seamlessly routing customers to sales and support representatives who specialize in a certain department, product type, or service will be the gold standard of chat.

Shopify saw first-hand this Black Friday Cyber Monday how having dedicated staff to manage chat conversations leads to more online sales. With specialized staff, customers get quicker service, and fast first response times resulted in higher conversion rates.

Between November 27 and 30, merchants who replied to customers via chat within five minutes were 70% more likely to convert that conversation into a sale. 

Data from Shopify's BFCM data 2020

With a layer of AI-powered automation handling up to 80% of incoming chats, merchants and their teams have time to give one-to-one service to shoppers via live chat and video chat, and convert more of their conversations into sales.

Tech

AI chat solutions will focus on enriching their AI Machine Learning models to have a more nuanced, polished approach to detecting customer intent. The chatbot’s ability to handle more complex sales and support scenarios will improve, creating more efficiencies across the pre-sale and post-sale customer journey. 

Trust

Better models will lead to increased personalization and functionalities, which will strengthen consumers' trust in chatbots as a valuable channel to use whether they're browsing, buying, or looking for support.

As the in-store experience continues to find its place in a post-pandemic world, personalizing and humanizing ecommerce through chat will build better brand equity. Thanks to great teams and great tech, we can get there — even when in the most uncertain times. 

Editor’s note: Merchants using Shopify Ping can use the Heyday app to manage their conversations across all messaging platforms from a single app. Visit the Shopify app store today to get started.