What Do Retail Customers Prefer: Assistance From Humans or Machines?
Chatbots and other artificial intelligence-assisted customer service tools continue to grow exponentially as retailers look to improve efficiencies. The benefits of chatbots and electronic systems for businesses are relatively straightforward: less time spent monitoring communication channels, less expensive customer service solutions, and even the ability to grow by converting potential customers. Some analysts believe chatbots — and the evolving capabilities of AI — could revolutionize industries and propel companies to new levels of success. One analysis found that the global chatbot market is expected to reach more than $10 billion by 2026.
So that’s the business side; it’s pretty clear cut why organizations deploy automated solutions. But what about consumers? How do they feel about dealing with chatbots and other AI approaches to customer service? Experts maintain AI-powered chat services offer consumers quicker turnaround, easy answers to complex questions and can even offer recommendations. Do consumers share this enthusiasm? To find out, Arm Treasure Data commissioned a survey of 1,000 adults, asking how they feel about AI assistance and current attitudes toward retail shopping.
Given the nascent nature of the technology, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the results are mixed.
Looking at the positive, consumers responding to the survey cited efficiency, less time placed on hold, and faster time to address problems as reasons for using electronic systems instead of humans. If implemented well, automation and AI’s ability to efficiently assist customers can lead to satisfactory experiences and maintain, if not strengthen, brand loyalty.
On the downside, a meager one in five respondents said they prefer electronic systems to human interaction. Seventy-three percent said they have had a frustrating experience in which electronic systems failed to connect them to the correct department or customer service representative. And a majority of respondents still see significant advantages to human support, such as a better understanding of customer concerns (72 percent) and more thorough explanations (59 percent).
Over the last two decades, online shopping sales have reshaped the retail landscape. One milestone occurred in February 2019 when online shopping took a higher percentage of total market share of general merchandise sales in the United States for the first time. As we begin a new decade, it’s likely consumers will do even more shopping online.
Beyond the obvious conveniences of shopping online, the survey uncovered some surprising responses as to why people prefer digital shopping to in-store shopping. Nearly two in three consumers admitted they prefer to shop online to avoid human interaction. Fifty-eight percent shop online because they’re “feeling lazy,” and 42 percent cite social anxiety as a reason for staying away from stores.
It’s clear that the modern customer experience (CX) will increasingly include more automation and AI. Yet, how people feel about AI and chatbots will determine how truly successful these systems are. With consumers, convenience has always been paramount — and it remains so today. In fact, the underlying theme of a recent survey of 3,000 consumers was the lack of convenience in today’s customer service experiences. Most respondents (60 percent) said if a company gave them the option to self-serve (i.e., a chatbot), they would select it as a first option to resolve an issue. Furthermore, 47 percent of consumers reported using a chatbot to troubleshoot problems in the past.
While interactions between humans and machines are destined to become more common, it remains to be seen how long it will take for consumers to fully embrace these systems. The scope and quality of the data feeding the machines will play a big part in accelerating customer acceptance. As more trusted data becomes available and algorithms improve, the machines will be able to offer greater assistance, quicker transactions and a vastly improved overall experience.
As noted earlier, convenience is key. The retailers that develop and deploy AI systems that are as simple and helpful as advertised will be the ones to reap the rewards. Consumers are at least open to new possibilities — it’s up to retailers to deliver the goods.
Tom Treanor is the global head of marketing at Arm Treasure Data, an enterprise customer data platform.
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