2020 Retail Outlook: Two-Way Conversations Will Flourish
The internet has not only increased the importance of customer service as a differentiator; it’s altogether changed the way shoppers and brands interact. In the past, sellers could rely on mass messaging to communicate offers and announce new products, with a toll-free number or mailing address for customer service inquiries. Now customers expect to have an active voice in conversations with brands.
The trend started with the advent of online reviews, and blossomed as social networks gave consumers new platforms to share their opinions about brands and products with their peers. As more and more consumers accessed the tools to share word-of-mouth advice, recommendations from friends and family have become the most trusted kind of endorsement for shoppers.
In addition, expectations are growing for brands to respond on social platforms and via live chat and mobile messaging — and to respond quickly. Of the 39 percent of U.S. shoppers who use social media to interact with brands, 44 percent expect a response within an hour, according to Microsoft. On Facebook, brands must respond to 90 percent of queries within 15 minutes to earn a badge for responsiveness.
More and more platforms now exist for brands to communicate directly and instantaneously with shoppers. Facebook Messenger led the way in 2015 by offering businesses the chance to connect directly with users, and has since then allowed companies to use artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots to provide information on the platform. Apple followed suit in 2018 with the launch of Business Chat, while Google has experimented with various messaging formats integrated into search ads and business listings. The search giant is backing an industrywide push for adoption of Rich Communications Services (RCS), which would bring features popular in messaging apps — such as read receipts, stickers, and group chats — to the default texting tools provided by mobile carriers.
Even more disruptive is the rise of voice search and voice shopping. More than two-thirds of U.S. consumers have already used a digital voice assistant, according to Microsoft, which predicts that 75 percent of the nation’s households will own a smart speaker by the end of 2020. Brands that are well-positioned for this shift will emerge as leaders in the year to come. To do so, they must consider the following best practices:
Focus on the Right Conversational Platforms for the Target Audience
With so many ways to start a conversation with consumers, brands are in danger of stretching themselves too thin by trying to cover too many platforms. This is a potential liability given that swift response times are a must.
Instead, sellers should identify which conversational services best match their customers, from social messaging apps to SMS text services to live chat on e-commerce sites. Starting small will help brands build and maintain a reputation for exceptional service; brands can then continue to adapt as the mix of conversational platforms and audience preferences evolve.
Automate for Speed and Satisfaction
By relying on AI-powered automated intelligence to handle routine questions via a chatbot, merchants can deliver immediate responses and save their human customer service agents for more complex situations. Consistency is another benefit: 1-800-Flowers.com, which pioneered conversational commerce with its GWYN (Gifts When You Need them) bot, discovered that customers actually preferred the automated service for placing orders because it was reliably uniform every time they used it. By contrast, “if you were to call a customer service department or sales line of any company, you’re not necessarily getting one company experience,” said CEO Chris McCann. “You’re getting whatever the experience is delivered by any of those 400, 500 or 1000 people.” The company has now expanded its AI-powered services to Facebook Messenger.
Start the Ultimate Conversation by Inviting Product Input
Software companies have long relied on customers to help shape future product development through beta testing programs and user communities. Now other industries are applying the concept, using conversational commerce as an opportunity to learn what customers need and what products they want to see next. Cosmetics upstart Glossier is renowned for building a community around its products; the compnay founders’ blog, “In the Gloss,” was the source of inspiration for the Milky Jelly cleanser, which was developed after consumers said they preferred a two-step process — makeup removal followed by soap — to wash their faces. Glossier combined both products into one, simplifying routines.
Creating a Two-Way Conversation
As shoppers take the reins of communication with brands and expect relevant information on demand, merchants should prepare by retooling their customer service content for conversational use, as well as their mind-set as they establish meaningful two-way dialogue with consumers.
Fang Cheng is the CEO and co-founder of Linc Global, a customer care automation platform that helps brands differentiate themselves with automated services and experiences across the channels shoppers prefer.
Fang Cheng is the CEO and co-founder of Linc Global, a customer care automation platform that helps brands differentiate themselves with automated services and experiences across the channels shoppers prefer. Linc Global has served over 15 percent of U.S. shoppers, creating a competitive advantage, reducing customer service costs, and turning service interactions into new engagement and revenue. Linc Global's clients include Carter’s, eBags, Stein Mart, Lamps Plus, JustFab.com, Tarte, Hugo Boss, Vineyard Vines, and P&G Shop.
With a passion and relentlessness for improving the customer experience, Fang brought together a seasoned team of technologists and product-minded people to empower brands with the ability to serve and engage shoppers and to drive profitable growth in the face of rising competition and customer expectations. With a Ph.D. in bioinformatics from NYU, Fang previously co-founded a business acquired by Amazon, and prior to that, she worked as a hedge fund manager.