There are many types of bookings, from booking an appointment at the hairdresser to booking a table at a restaurant to booking a seat at a cinema. Each type of booking requires the customer to provide mandatory and optional parameters.
The question is what can a chatbot add to the bookings process?
If we are talking about a voice bot i.e. a chatbot that can only be accessed via voice commands (such as Alexa or Google Home), the chatbot can add a lot of value.
The main value of a voice interface is speed and convenience. It is faster to say something than it is to type or click especially since typing entails locating yourself by a keyboard at the very minimum. This assumes that the voice interface works so well that the speed and convenience gained is not lost through inability to understand and slow responses.
Whether the chatbot is voice or text based, the first question is who is the chatbot representing? For example, does the chatbot represent the customer, the service provider or a third party?
A chatbot such as Google’s Duplex, represents the customer. It can make phone calls to hairdressers and other service provides to make bookings. This adds value to the customer because the customer no longer has to make the phone calls themselves. Similar functionality could be available for text based bots assuming that it is possible to book with a service provider by chat. These bots, however, increase the likelihood of service providers receiving speculative or spam calls.
The chatbot can represent the service provider. This is by far the more common use case. In this case, the chatbot can respond to the customer’s commands and questions via a text or voice interface (through a device or over the phone).
There are a few questions here regarding using a chatbot for this task.
Firstly will the chatbot be better than a graphical interface for this task? The answer is: It depends.
Even if the chatbot is a voice bot, there are often advantages to using a graphical interface over using voice commands. Imagine as an extreme example of how difficult it would be telling someone how to build a spreadsheet over the phone versus just building it yourself.
Graphical interfaces communicate information about what is possible and what is happening that is not possible with voice interfaces (unless of course, the voice interface controls a screen, which could make the application of voice interfaces wider). This is why both Alexa and Google Home have introduced versions of their devices with screens. For example, a graphical interface can show which dates are already booked on a calendar so that it is easy for the user to choose dates that are available. The equivalent is not naturally available for a voice bot although it would be via a linked screen or via a graphical widget embedded in a text based bot.
The same issues apply to a text based bot. A text based bot has a big disadvantage versus a voice based bot in that it is much slower to type than to speak. It has the advantage as mentioned above however that graphical widgets can be embedded in the chat interface or there can be interactions with graphical interfaces which make the text based bot faster to use in some cases.
It may also be the case that the text based bot is better able to handle long-running asynchronous processes, i.e. where a given process that it is overseeing takes time to be done. It is not however normally the case that bookings require long-running processes.
There are applications that aggregate bookings, such as OpenTable and Booking.com. These tools provide added convenience for customers as they can filter and see availability across a large number of service providers. In this case, a graphical interface is far superior to using a chatbot.
Even in the case of aggregation, however, a chatbot can have a role to play around the specific booking. Customers may have specific questions that the bot can address. The customer may also have specific actions that he would like to perform around the booking and it may be better to provide the ability to do these actions through a chatbot rather than taking the customer to a new graphical interface. This is because the learning curve for using a chatbot is much lower than for a graphical interface.
Booking.com and Alibaba effectively use scripted chatbots to provide after booking / ordering services to customers. Customers can quickly perform relevant actions without having to learn a new graphical interface.
In short, what a chatbot can add to a booking process depends on the case in question. As always the use case will depend on which booking mechanism offers the most convenience and speed to the customer.
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