More and more agencies here are employing chatbots, including a firm whose bots made sales on their own
It started as a way to automate replies to their customers.
But employing chatbots - a programme that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to carry on a conversation - in July this year turned out to be a gold mine for Mr Kester Poh and his team.
Mr Poh is the co-founder of AskVoila, a digital personal shopper service that helps customers pick, review and buy items - such as electronics, clothes and even groceries - online via Facebook Messenger.
"At first, we hoped the chatbots would just help us reply to customers, but it turned out that they actually sealed some deals on their own.
"From there, we started looking out how to further develop our chatbot technology, before we realised we could make it into a business in itself," he said.
Today, Mr Poh, 32, and his business partners - Mr Matthew Low, 32, and Mr Yong Siong Wee, 33 - run AiChat, a firm specialising in developing chatbots for businesses.
Interacting with a chatbot is similar to chatting with a human being. Users type a question into a chat window and the bot will answer.
Their clients include a big electronics brand and several food and beverage outlets, though they declined to reveal details of their clients as their products have not been officially launched.
While there are fewer than 10 firms specialising in creating chatbots here, the demand is surely growing.
The global market for chatbots was estimated at US$627.7 million (S$910 million) last year, according to a report released in August by Transparency Market Research.
By 2024, the chatbot market is expected to be worth US$7.9 billion.
The Government has also been building on this technology.
Its Conversations As A Platform project, announced in July, was set up to better help users navigate government e-services in a conversation style.
One example is the Government's Ask Jamie bot, which was jointly developed by the now-defunct Infocomm Development Authority and the Ministry of Finance, and runs on a natural language processing engine to understand the questions asked by the public before responding.
It has been deployed on the websites of 17 government agencies, including the Government Technology Agency (GovTech), the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of Education.
The Housing Board website and mobile app also has its own chatbot - Ask Judy - that can answer questions on new flat applications and season parking.
A GovTech spokesman told The New Paper that the Ask Jamie bot is undergoing a trial - in collaboration with Mircosoft - on popular messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger and Telegram to answer questions from members of the public.
"Beyond the current pilot, there are plans to extend the chatbot to explore transactional and personalised enquiries, bringing innovation and ease of use to the next level," said the spokesman.
Big firms such as DBS - South-east Asia's largest bank, - and Jetstar, which launched its Ask Jess virtual assistant in November 2013, have already jumped on the chatbot bandwagon.
Mr Poh said chatbots have helped his digital shopper business. At their peak, in August, the bots closed 6 per cent to 7 per cent of deals on their own.
"If we translate to manpower, it means we could cut our frontline manpower (that deals with customers) by 60 per cent to 70 per cent and have them redeployed to other aspects of our business," he said.
Mr Poh said he expects the market to scale tremendously in the next five years.
Co-founder of Gotobot.ai, Mr Sze Tho ChangSheng, agreed.
Similar to AiChat, Mr Sze Tho and his co-founders - Ms Sujata Liao, 32, and Mr Wayne Tng, 26 - started Gotobot.ai after realising how chatbots helped their online restaurant booking firm Chatobook.
"As time and technology progresses, we could see chatbots automating even more tasks, such as making purchases, converting currency, booking appointments and setting alerts.
"They can be applied everywhere and are not difficult to be programmed.
"When the AI gets smarter and is able to process more information such as image, facial or voice recognition, it can only get better," he said.
This article was first published on December 20, 2016. Get The New Paper for more stories.