The Next Wave: Concierge Services and the Future of Brands in a World of Bots

We are nearing the convergence of three major trends that have been cooking for some time, and while it’s exciting for users, it can be challenging for brands.

The three big trends are: AI, messaging, and, perhaps most importantly to businesses, concierge services.

Billion dollar brands have been reaching for the dream state of turning their customers’ phones into on-demand concierge services for some time. The realization that users will pay a premium for brand services that remove hassle from their everyday lives, and give them back their most precious resource…time.

UberPostmatesLyftShyp, and Thumbtack, just to name a few, are all focused on getting things done for you. Things that seem easy—like getting a ride or mailing a package—can turn into a frustrating, day-long ordeal. These tasks have been made easy through large networks connecting agents to app users.

While none of that’s groundbreaking at this point, what comes next starts to look a lot different. Today, to use any of these services, you have to download an app. Or at least when each of them launched you had to download an app. That’s changing. Now, instead of downloading an app for each service, you can connect to services through messaging apps or SMS.

When you connect with a company’s bot on a messaging service, it will give you a predetermined list of commands that allow you to request services through text. Hyatt hotels is an example of a company currently taking advantage of this technology by letting customers connect with a concierge bot in Facebook Messenger. The bot allows you to do things like order room service or request a toothbrush. Super convenient for consumers and also beneficial for the business.

To go one step further, there are also bots that aggregate multiple services from multiple providers. For example, Assist is a bot that allows you to connect with multiple services to do different tasks—book a hotel, send flowers, order food, etc… The user, however, doesn’t know what services are on the other end. You might get a ride from Lyft or Uber, and you won’t know the service that is booking your hotel.

On the other end of the consolidation spectrum is Magic, which allows you to send SMS messages to get anything (legal). This is done through a network of humans, not automated tasks.

Facebook’s M promises a mix of automated tasks and Human workers to give you whatever you want. Sort of a hybrid of Assist and Magic.

The last piece that gets added into this puzzle is AI. AI is capable of many things, some scary, some exciting. What it means in the services context, is that machine learning will make the experience you have using concierge services, whether through apps or chat, better over time. Each experience will become more personalized and start to anticipate your needs.

And we can’t forget the giants in this space: Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon. Each is developing their own AI and most are focused on voice commands—Alexa, Siri, etc. Each mixes AI, services, and conversational interactions, and they do so without any graphical interface. This is perhaps where the three leading trends converge most directly.

A Model for Success

What does all this mean for businesses? To answer that question, you have to unpack what each of our three converging trends really means. That will provide an answer, or a formula, and it might just make you rethink everything about your brand.

1. Remove all the Obstacles

The successful concierge apps are successful because they remove obstacles. That means a number of things. First, there are transactional obstacles. It’s not easy to call a restaurant and make a reservation. You have to do it on the restaurant’s time, you might get put on hold, and you might have to talk back and forth about different scheduling options (possibly without access to your calendar since you are using your phone). An app like OpenTable removes all of those challenges.

Nearly every business can benefit from this mentality. Perhaps the most obvious is the hospitality industry. The number of tasks that can be automated when staying in a hotel is immense. Rather than calling the front desk, I ought to be able to use an app to request more coffee, clean towels, etc. And I ought to be able to book any of the hotel’s services, or request my car to be brought to the valet station.

The opportunities for other businesses may be less obvious, but they exist. Perhaps, you are an auto service center. Your app could facilitate getting rides to and from your shop while a customer’s car is being repaired, and notify them as soon as their car is ready.

Even restaurants can simplify processes through apps. Everything from checking into a queue at the front of the house, to ordering and paying without requiring all the traditional transactional time that comes from in-person service. And that’s not just for fast food. BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhousehas done this with their mobile app for some time.

Doctors can be seen over video. Airlines can provide digital boarding passes and let you check in to your flight. Rental car companies can guide you to your car in the lot. A coffee shop can let you pre-order your coffee. The list is ever expanding.

But, there’s still one obstacle. That’s where the second major point comes in.

2. Be Where your Customers Are

Even if you’ve removed major obstacles to your service through an app, your customers still have to download the app. The next step is to remove that challenge. Make your service available through an API so that it can integrate with other services, and remove the obstacle of customers having to download your app.

This is where messaging apps come into play. Instead of requiring a customer to download your app, let them text you or use their favorite messaging app to achieve key tasks. Domino’s pizza does a really good job of this. The pizza chain allows customers to text or even tweet their order. They make it easily repeatable by allowing customers to create a favorite order, and then simply tweet the pizza emoji to order their saved favorite order and have it delivered to their address on file.

While that’s all well and good, chat bots allow you to do much more than that. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to interact, for example, with a coffee company’s bot to order any menu item and have it paid for and ready when I arrive. All without downloading another app.

[That’s not to say you shouldn’t have an app. For many users, downloading an app, or visiting your website is still going to be their preferred connection method. The key is to figure out the right mix for your audience. Chat is just another tool in your arsenal.]

3. Make it Personal

The last key to success in this shifting landscape is to make the experience personal. This is happening today through AI, but also through much more human services. Companies like Stitch Fix and Trunk Club are creating businesses from the idea of providing everyone with their own personal stylist. But beyond that, personalization is about removing obstacles (notice a pattern) and simplifying experience. Personal experiences prioritize the content and tools that individual users want most.

If you continue with the coffee bot analogy, when I start interacting with the service, the service can suggest that I reorder my favorite item, let me see past orders, or start a new order. These options allow me to quickly repeat a past transaction from my personal history, removing the obstacle of starting a new order every time. As the bot learns more about me, it can even start to make recommendations for the next drink I should try.

Designing Experience

Design is about creating an experience and solving real problems.

What this all means, is that we have to shift our notions of two important constructs: brand and design.

If you ask most consumers what they think about when they think of a brand, they’ll point to a logo, a package, a color scheme — all the visual parts of an experience. But what if you can’t differentiate between brands through visuals? What if all the visual branding a company were capable of was a logo in a circle? Or, a step further, in the realm of Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, just an action?

Then the brand has to be more of what a brand actually is. Not a collection of elements, but an experience. Voice, tone, and service become the most important aspects of your brand when your brand is experienced in deeper ways.

That leaves design in a tricky place, too. Again, design is a misunderstood word. When most consumers are asked, they refer to the visual aesthetic aspects of an experience as the design. But design is so much broader. Design is about creating an experience and solving real problems. What tasks can users achieve through chat? What are the most important questions to answer? How do you onboard a chat user? How do you distinguish the brand? How should you handle requests without answers? How can we make this process simpler? Those are all design questions. They are more about the core of design—solving problems—than most of what is considered part of a designer’s role.

It’s an exciting time, with lots of questions to be answered. The key is to start thinking about your brand and designing the personal, relevant, easy experience that you want attached your company. And to begin thinking outside of the confines of design as we know it, because solving real world problems doesn’t always involve interacting with a screen.