Bot Local: Making Appointments Is Getting a Lot More Fun

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Hello world?

Well hello there. And how are you today? Could I get you something? Looks like you could use a haircut… How about we schedule that?


Welcome to the future — which is also a vision of the recent past. Today, location- and service-oriented bots are improving on what was attempted many years ago when in a crude manner (over AIM and other old-school messaging platforms) these automated response tools tried to help people get things they wanted just a little bit quicker. Admittedly, in the past that usually meant trivial fun rather than, say, quick pizza delivery.

The automated and human-assisted bots I had a small hand in working on at AOL over a decade ago, for example, delivered outcomes that at the time felt wondrous but in reality revealed our reach always exceeding our grasp. (The SmarterChild release by ActiveBuddy over Instant Messenger later on was more impressive — focused tightly on delivering fact-based data like news and sports.) I even recall a chat room bot we programmed to automatically suggest advertiser names to participants in the live public forum based on words mentioned by chatters — yeah, that never launched publicly… ;-).

Looking back, many of those human-to-bot interactions experiments in the past veered off target and turned into semi-sad conversations between the lonely or bored and a one-dimensional digital persona pulling responses from a simple database. Blah.

You: Could you book me a hotel room?

Bot: What books do you like to read? 

You: Um, well, Mid-century fiction, but…

Bot: I’m sorry I can’t help you with that! Here are some things I can do…

And even in this, what some have anointed the “Year of the Bot,” we’re still seeing these old familiar clunky interactions. No Turing-busters yet, despite big plans and interesting work from the likes of Facebook, Kik, Slack and others. But that may be missing the point.

Perhaps the bot evolution is less about becoming Scarlett Johansson’s smoky-voiced persona in Her, and more about getting you what you need or want right in the moment you have time to request it: quickly, simply, without the overhead of an app, and without humans in the chain of communication.

And it’s that kind of user that booking platform Pingup seems to be targeting with its upcoming “Appointments Anywhere” release. Already powering the booking of appointments (sort of Mad Lib-style — see an example here) in numerous outlets such as YP, CitySearch, Superpages and others to be announced soon, Pingup is now moving to make these tasks so much simpler (and kind offun).

Backed by patents that relate to conversational commerce, Pingup is bringing its API-powered live booking capability to “a broader range of leading-edge consumer interfaces and pingup-mobile-messaging-bot-ANIMATED@2xplatforms,” the company has said. This means “Pingup-
powered bots” (across new AI, messaging and bot platforms) will give consumers the power to book and confirm appointments in real time with “tens of thousands of local businesses across the U.S.”

One can easily see this as another threat to traditional search. Who needs the overhead of a site or app when an end-to-end transaction can all be handled inline?

Turf Talk recently caught up with Pingup CEO Mark Slater to get his thoughts on the evolution of bots, his company’s plans for the API, and where we should expect it to see it in the wild.

You have a history in thinking about consumer bots … can you talk about that?
When we thought about “chat” and how people could “message” a business and receive a response we quickly realized that the dominant behavior — asking for an appointment or placing an order — could be solved programmatically, and that “bots” could be the transactional payload.

How and when did you come to the conclusion you needed to go down the path of bots for commerce?
We filed our original patents at the end of 2012 and they were directly aimed at the notion that a “bot” would programmatically assist in the completion of an appointment. It was obvious to us at that time that bots were going to be a major part of local commerce.

Pingup uses the term “conversational commerce” quite a bit. How do you define it?
Engaging in a conversation with an entity that can understand and interpret your intent … and facilitate a loop-closing process as a result. It requires some [neuro-linguistic programming] but the whole notion of “chatting” with a bot at this stage is coming to the fore.

Is this the end of “click-to-call?”
No. In our view this is highly complementary. We even include a click to call option in our deployments.

How is your approach different from other bot makers we’ve seen?
We solve for the user journey programmatically; we have no intention of a human interruption model. We can also solve for the entire transaction journey within the bot context — we never jump out to an affiliate experience.

How have clients responded when you showed them what you’ve been up to with the API?
We are early in showing how we have innovated. But we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback.

What is your philosophy on bots both for commerce as well as entertainment/communications tools?
We solely focus on commerce bots. We believe that this represents a direct threat to search.

Your first execution of the API will be in the form of a Slack Bot? What can we expect to see and when?
We expect to unveil the bot within weeks. You’ll be able to search for services, find business and book appointments with the bot.

How can local businesses take advantage of the API release?
They simply need to keep using the software that manages their schedules. We’ll do the rest.

What platforms will be coming next and when?
We are talking with all the messaging platforms in addition to some of the “concierge” startups.

See a demo of the coming Slack integration below:

RickRRick Robinson is SVP of Product for on-demand roadside assistance startup He is also an advisor to Street Fight. Follow him at @itsrickrobinson