Much has been said about the scope for chatbots automate customer service, but while Pizza Express eyes a "huge opportunity" in branded bots the restaurant chain's head of social Tim Love doesn't think they'll replace human interaction.
The company has been experimenting with the medium since it launched a Facebook Messenger game last year, and it has now unveiled a reservation bot which far from being a fad is something Pizza Express wants to nurture and develop as part of its wider marketing strategy.
The company claims the bot is the first of its kind in the UK. It uses live data to analyse timings and table availability at local restaurants and lets Facebookers book a table within 90-seconds. Love says the chain was receiving a lot of booking enquiries via Facebook Messenger anyway, making the move to automation a no-brainer.
The Facebook Messenger bot in question launched last December as a game for customers to play in-restaurant. Some 150,000 people took part, with Love admitting the figure came as a surprise.
"As soon as it became quite apparent to us that people were happy to use Messenger as a platform to interact with us, the next natural step was to think 'how do we use the platform to make it as useful as possible for customers?'" he muses.
Though he concedes its early days for bots, which have been used by the likes of Unilever, KLM and the Guardian since Facebook took them mainstream last spring, Love says: "We’ve got big plans for it going forward, we see it as something we want to massively optimise and maintain momentum with."
The gamification element offered by bots has been explored by Pizza Express, but the chain wants to keep things simple and bring a bit more functionality to its offering. For example, this could include the ability for customers to receive answers to queries in Messenger around things like how many calories are in their meal, or what gluten free options their local restaurant offers. Love hints that the service could even evolve to facilitate diners splitting the bill or paying for a meal within Facebook's walls.
"It’s still such early days in terms of people using bots for these type of things especially in the UK – in the US payment via Messenger is already pretty much rolled out. So I think it’s a little bit of a 'wait and see'."
"I’m not 100% convinced at the moment that people are entirely comfortable with bots as a premise. I think that will change a lot as time goes on."
When it comes to measuring the success of its bot, Love says the chain will look at whether people are actually using it to book tables, and whe,ther it prompts customers to engage with the brand in a different way, be it on its website or via the additional features the team want to build into it.
The industry has been abuzz with suggestions on how bots could enhance consumer interaction, but many businesses, including the likes of Marriot hotels, are using them in a customer service capacity to respond to an always-on audience.
For Pizza Express it seems that nuanced enquires and complaints, ie questions that go beyond things like opening hours and menus, will always be met with "an actual person giving them an answer".
"A bot isn’t going to be able to answer a question about something that happened in a specific restaurant," he says.
"The challenge for brands is to think: 'how is this actually useful for people?' because I think where [bots] strength lies in the fact they can be hugely helpful without needing a resource to constantly monitor an inbox."
"There’s a temptation obviously to do quirkier things and use it for stuff like gamification, which is something that’s worked really well for us and it’s something we’d do again, but equally there is more possibility I think in terms of bots that are always on, and there’s always something functional that can be done with them to help a customer."