November 21, 2016 5:01 PM, EST
UPS Debuts ‘Chatbots’ to Help Customers With Simple Requests
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

UPS Inc. is developing apps that help customers with simple requests and may someday enable them to track packages using voice commands.

UPS started offering a “chatbot” interactive feature on the Facebook Messenger app, Skype and Inc.’s Alexa virtual assistant system without fanfare this month. Chatbots are programs that often use artificial intelligence to interact with customers.

UPS ranks No. 1 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

The package-delivery company’s initial chatbot can handle simple requests such as finding the nearest location of a UPS Store or getting shipping rates. Customers type their question into the Messenger app or speak into Amazon’s voice-enabled Alexa system.

Follow-up versions will enable UPS customers to get more advanced information, said Stuart Marcus, UPS’s vice president of customer technology marketing. A customer sitting on his couch at home may ask the Alexa system if he has a UPS delivery today, Marcus said. Longer term, he sees UPS increasingly using artificial intelligence to pick up on customers’ unique ways of speaking and to respond to them.

“Chatbots are pretty cool, and they’re getting better and they’re useful in various situations,” Marcus said.

The key to making chatbots and other artificial intelligence work will be integrating them into UPS’s My Choice program, which enables customers to set their preferences for where packages should be delivered and to reroute packages to other locations. More than 30 million people in 15 countries use the My Choice service, the company said.

Marcus sees UPS being able to integrate people’s My Choice information into chatbots in the near future so customers can inquire about, say, a package from a specific retailer.

Some challenges remain, including how to ensure security.

UPS is working on features that will verify who is using the chatbot to make sure information about a package is only given to the proper customer.

“We have to make sure we have the right protocol,” Marcus said. “We have to make sure we have a way to make sure you are who you say you are.