Conversational commerce is the buzz word du jour of Silicon Valley, Madison Avenue, and Wall Street, but the concept is as ancient as mankind. We have traded with each other since Homo Sapiens emerged as a species approximately 200,000 years ago. My harvest for your game. My loyalty for your protection.

How were these exchanges conducted? By conversation.

While spoken language as we practice today emerged later, we’re often won over by a simple smile. Communication experts claim 60-90% of our interactions with others are non-verbal: an amalgamation of body language, facial expressions, and vocal attributes. Conversation is comprised of more than words or text. Conversation is intimate, emotional, personal, and human.

We tend to lose this truth amidst the buzz of bots and artificial intelligence.

When Mark Zuckerberg launched bots for Messenger at F8 this year, his aim was to enable you to “message a business just the way you would message a friend.” Zuckerberg is only half right. We don’t just want to message businesses. We want to have a human connection with a business the same way we have human connections with our friends.

Until the recent rise of e-commerce, our exchanges were largely conducted face-to-face, person-to-person. We had visceral, authentic reactions in the company of other humans. We sought each other out for opinions, expertise, and friendship. Now, we turn on our computers, open a web browser, type in keywords, and click a button to ensure we stock toilet paper in our bathrooms.

Conversational commerce should not just streamline online shopping. Conversational commerce should humanize online shopping.

You can put apps in chat. You can put chat in apps. You can build bots that talk to humans. You can build bots that talk to bots. None of these automatically constitute a proper “conversational commerce” experience. They are simply vehicles that have the potential to deliver “conversational commerce”.

Case in point: Gizmodo writer Darren Orf describes most bots as “dull conversationalists” and his interactions with them as “unnatural, punctuated by moments of frustrating silence.” Benedict Evans, partner at Andreessen Horowitz, recently blurted out that “bots are a shit way to shop.”

Many share his sentiments. Messaging apps were created so humans could talk to each other, yet bot creators often neglect the human-to-human element. The result is experiences which feel awkwardly “non-conversational.”

Problems with “non-conversational” bots are exacerbated in the realm of luxury. Rare is the human who buys $15,000 handbags and $400,000 sports cars with zero human interaction. Even the omnichannel strategies of luxury brands seek to replicate the personalization and level of service consumers expect from their high-end retail stores.

“When it comes to luxury shopping, there is no substitute for the personalized experience offered by a knowledgeable Saks Associate,” says Joe Milano, Senior Vice President at Saks Fifth Avenue. Associates are expected to develop relationships with customers on the sales floor and continue personalizing their online experiences with hand-picked products, curated content, and high-touch service.

The care and craft of “white glove” experiences is difficult to duplicate digitally. Although artificial intelligence techniques such as machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) have made considerable strides towards mimicking human-level conversations, shopping remains a complex and nuanced activity that confound their current capabilities. Personal quirks, timing, social influences, and a multitude of other factors play into how consumers discover, decide, purchase, and revisit. 

To design the ultimate conversational experience for our luxury menswear brand, Top Drawer, we employed a hybrid model. A boutique brand cannot afford to apply expert labor to every aspect of the customer’s journey. We automated the product discovery process by porting our storefront into Facebook Messenger’s convenient conversational interface. Customers can leisurely browse our modern and classic collections, compare descriptions, and read our editorial magazine.


Top Drawer - Conversational Luxury


Luxury menswear exhibits two unique features. First, men often discover brands through women, typically girlfriends or wives who shop on their behalf. Second, men are brand loyalists. When they discover products they love, they repeat the same purchasing behavior over and over.

For loyalty-driven e-commerce brands, paying customers are far more valuable than potential customers. We strategically apply our human touch only after a customer has bought a product, ensuring that we spend our limited resources on the highest value clients.


Top Drawer - Conversational Luxury


Timing such high-touch offers after a customer’s purchase cycle has beneficial psychological effects. Receiving an unexpected “reward” of service leads to positive emotional associations with the proceeding purchasing action, which increases the likelihood of the action being repeated. Our customers also report feelings of belonging, as if members of an “insider club”. Rather than being persuaded or manipulated to join, they attribute the outcome to their own motivations and actions.

The lesson for conversational commerce? You must balance personalization and automation. People want to know who they’re buying from. We’ve done business human-to-human for hundreds of thousands of years, but recent trends in online shopping have undermined our natural connection in commerce. 

Conversational commerce, implemented successfully, can recapture our lost intimacy at scale.