These days, the retail industry is grappling with “Amazonitis.”
Amazon.com has disrupted virtually every sector in the retail market, from food to fashion. In order to survive, retailers, particularly brick-and-mortar businesses, have to give people a reason to come to their stores. They must create a distinctive customer experience, and to that end, they should invest in two areas: people and technology.
One of the controllable costs in retail is human capital, and many retailers attempt to cut costs by reducing staff. This is the wrong approach. Employees are a company’s greatest asset, and for retailers, they're the emissaries to the client base. In a recent survey conducted by Microsoft, 96 percent of people said customer service is critical to brand loyalty. The same study revealed that 54 percent of people expect better customer service today than a year ago.
To adapt to this increasingly customer-oriented environment, retail employees need to be more productive, capable, confident and skilled. That’s where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. Virtual assistants are the next generation of retail tech support.
A digital colleague can be a partner for humans in a variety of functions. New hire training is an important part of any retailer’s business, and virtual assistants can supplement training programs and act as a constant resource as new staff learn processes and procedures. On the customer-facing side, virtual assistants can act as what we call a “whisper agent,” advising human colleagues in the background. For example, at Allstate, virtual colleagues have collaborated with live agents on more than 3 million calls. Employees are able to access knowledge using virtual assistants to augment their own.
The same concept can be applied in a retail context. At a supermarket, for example, virtual assistants can be trained on a variety of food preparation inquiries. For example, if a customer asks about options for seasoning meat, a clerk might not have a recommendation offhand, but he or she could find an answer with assistance from a virtual assistant. The suggested spices or sauces could then be bundled as a package and offered at a discount. The brand outreach could continue post-purchase, with the retailer inviting the customer to comment online on how the meal was received.
Empowered by AI, employees will provide a better customer experience and gain a greater understanding of the products and services they sell, as well as their customers’ tastes and preferences. Employees and customers alike will be more satisfied.
Retailers can’t afford to have shoppers enter their stores with an intent to buy, but wind up leaving with nothing except a negative impression caused by a lack of qualified staff. Every step of the way, employees should be on hand to provide an experience consumers can’t receive anywhere else. Face-to-face, human contact is the most important differentiator of brick-and-mortar stores — and augmenting that contact through AI can make a real difference in shopping experiences.
For example, if a customer is looking for a suit, a virtual assistant can quickly help a sales associate access that customer’s personal preferences, sizes and other details to recommend options that the customer is most likely to buy. This personalized interaction can lead to customers feeling a sense of trust and personalization rather than feeling like they're just another sale. In essence, the store has created a personal shopper experience and has established a personal connection. This is a relationship that online retailers — based on faceless, frictionless consumption — lack.
At this point, as retailers face an existential threat, AI isn't just an option for retailers, it’s a key to survival. To succeed with AI, retailers can’t treat the technology as a test. It has to be an immersion and a strategic priority.
Jonathan Crane is chief commercial officer at IPsoft, a provider of AI and cognitive technology systems.
Related story: The 2017 Retail Technology Report