Apple’s Business Chat Is the Conversational Tool That Retail Needs

The program is currently in beta

Apple's Business Chat is still in beta mode. Apple, Getty Images
Headshot of Ann-Marie Alcántara

Back in 2016, Facebook painted a bright future for the potential of commerce chatbots on Messenger. The rollout, however, was less than stellar, and the hype around chatbots quieted down. But there was a renewed interest in chatbots at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in 2017 when the company introduced Apple Business Chat, a platform designed to exist within the Messenger app that lets businesses interact with consumers via a mixture of bots and humans.

Business Chat is currently in beta mode, and for good reason—the slow rollout limits the chances of repeating Facebook’s mistakes.

Going too far, too fast could be a real problem,” said Ian Jacobs, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “It makes sense from a consumer point of view to really roll it out when there’s mass adoption.”

Business Chat was released as part of the iOS 11.3 update on March 29 with 10 partners, such as Home Depot, 1-800-Flowers and Wells Fargo, and with customer service companies like LivePerson, Zendesk and Salesforce. If consumers have the latest software downloaded, they can find these companies by searching for a company in Maps, Safari or Spotlight. (The rollout of business chat to more locations is happening on a daily basis.)

With Business Chat, consumers can look up items, buy products with Apple Pay, choose a time to chat with an agent about a problem and much more. 

The anonymous ID and safeguards to protect consumer information is yet another reminder to consumers and brands of just how serious Apple takes privacy.

The power of Business Chat rests in the consumers’ hands, as only consumers can begin a conversation with a brand and the company can’t see identifying information about them like name or phone number (unless the consumer gives up that information during a conversation with the brand). If the consumer deletes the conversation thread, the brand can’t contact them again until they start a new thread with them. If the consumer does choose to talk to that brand again, the anonymous ID is still associated with them and a brand can continue a conversation where they left off.

Amid Facebook’s growing data breach and privacy crisis, the anonymous ID and safeguards to protect consumer information is yet another reminder to consumers and brands of just how serious Apple takes privacy.

In an interview with MSNBC that aired on April 6, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “The truth is we could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer, if our customer was our product. We’ve elected not to do that.”

He added later in the interview, “You are not our product. You are our customer. You are a jewel, and we care about the user experience, and we’re not going to traffic in your personal life.”

Apple’s reputation for protecting consumer data is a reason why Jacobs believes a company like Wells Fargo decided to be part of the beta program. It falls in line with the security the company needs as a banking institution, even as it undergoes its own data security breaches.

“Because of the privacy and trust issues, Apple’s going to get a lot of brands who are going to look at it very closely and soon,” Jacobs said. “The combination of secure commerce, a brand that consumers trust with their data, no separate download required, all mean that Apple has a good chance to make a good impact.”

Apple’s “obsessive” mindset around protecting user data is also why Lowe’s went ahead with working with Apple. Gihad Jawhar, vp, digital at Lowe’s also sees this type of messaging experience as the “future of customer service.” For a company like Lowe’s where its consumers ask for customer service and advice, Business Chat helps facilitate that process.

“It’s just the nature of our business model and our customers and the nature of our brand [and Business Chat] is a good use case,” Jawhar said.

The current features of Lowe’s Business Chat experience include looking at a product and looking at a list of available delivery times for a product. Eventually, the company wants to implement Apple Pay. Of course, Jawhar stated some of these features will end up working and others won’t, and Lowe’s will adapt over time to decide what to keep, fix and whether or not it needs a real person as an agent or it could be automated for some capabilities.

Lowe’s is working with LivePerson, a customer service platform that gives brands the necessary technology to help agents (and bots) deal with customers. One of the biggest challenges they’ve seen is conversational design and figuring out how to make bots feel human for consumers (Apple does require businesses to always have a human agent ready in case a consumer wants to talk to a person). It’s important for many reasons for LivePerson to get it right, said Robert LoCascio, founder and CEO of LivePerson.

LoCascio also believes that some brand is going to come out with a conversational commerce experience on Business Chat that will change how people think about the platform.

“We’re really at ground zero of what marketers are going to be able to do with this,” LoCascio said.

Update: This story has been updated with additional information from Apple about anonymous IDs.

@itstheannmarie Ann-Marie Alcántara is a tech reporter for Adweek, focusing on direct-to-consumer brands and ecommerce.