We’ve all had bad customer service. From hurried sales staff to products being out of stock. And our expectations as consumers are changing dramatically. Think about it: it’s no longer about just browsing on the high street. We make impulse buys on our phones, we check out deals on Instagram and we expect sales associates to guess our preferences and interests based on what we’ve already bought online.
As we increasingly look forward to a tailored shopping experience – whether it’s in-store, online, on a mobile device or via the phone – retailers need to figure out a way to communicate effectively with us in this multi-channel era. To offer a VIP treatment at every touch point, many companies are turning to technology to help deliver personalized experiences and free up sales associates from monotonous tasks, allowing them to focus more time on delighting customers.
In fact, by 2025, as many as 95 percent of all customer interactions will be through channels supported by artificial intelligence (AI) technology, according to Servion Global Solutions. And AI-powered chatbots will be a key component in supporting the next generation of customer experience.
AI combined with human ingenuity is helping people to do incredible things and it’s also making customer service a more rewarding experience for both sides of the equation. However, the main hurdle for chatbots in this scenario has been the time and data needed to anticipate the huge range of questions customers could potentially ask. Not to mention being able to answer them correctly.
But as technology matures – and as savvy retailers introduce AI-powered technology in smarter ways – we’re seeing chatbots become not only more helpful, but also more human-like in their interactions.
Traditional Retail Taps Tech
Few retailers have seen bigger shifts in consumer trends than UK-based Dixons Carphone. When the company began life as a photographic studio in 1937, it was unimaginable that purchases could happen anywhere other than a store.
Today, around 90 percent of its business begins online and two-thirds of its customers browse its mobile website to get more product information while in-store. With the majority of research and purchasing decisions made online, tools are needed to ensure that customers still get the same service and product information they would get in-store.
To do this, Dixons Carphone used Microsoft’s Bot Framework to build Cami, an AI bot that talks with customers via Facebook Messenger.
Creating Bots that are Truly Helpful to Customers, Empowering for Employees
Dixons Carphone connected Cami directly to its inventory and product catalogue, giving the technology full view of its operations. And to ensure Cami would function as more than just a product expert, they gave her the very same training materials that their staff receives.
Cami currently allows customers to share their product research with friends, family and even store assistants but she is best put to use in-store. For example, Cami performs stock checks for shop assistants so that they can avoid leaving the customer behind on the shop floor.
But as she develops she will acquire the capability to go beyond straight-forward requests. In the near future, she could anticipate customers’ needs – so when someone buys a new device, Cami knows they will probably be interested in a protective cover or some insurance.
The work Cami is taking on potentially frees up the sales team to spend more time with customers. This helps drive customer satisfaction and loyalty. By having technology shoulder the burden of monotonous and repetitive tasks, businesses will save more than $8 billion by 2022, according to analysis firm Juniper Research.
An Experience with a ‘Human’ Touch
The next transitional leap in computing is building AI-powered tech and chatbots with behavior that is second-nature to humans – conversation. It will be a digital experience that mirrors human interaction and moves the world from having to understand computers to a place where they understand and adapt to us.
With Cami now in training for the job, the company’s focus moved to working on her “personality.”
“She’s mildly geeky and quite confident, and she’s there to help customers navigate the world of technology,” said Antonia Colin-Jones, Strategic Partnership Program Manager at Dixons Carphone.
And rather than just focusing on loading her with information, the company spent time developing her conversational awareness so that each customer conversation would be both unique and relevant.
Having bots that recognize what humans want would be beneficial to many industries that regularly deal with frustrated customers. For many of us, there are few experiences that can be more exasperating than booking flights and dealing with airports.
Simplifying Air Travel
Although many of us enjoy traveling and look forward to our next flight, almost all of us have at least one horror story to share. Airlines and travel providers can do little about cancellations due to bad weather, but they are using technology to improve their services, especially during unexpected events and delays.
Take Sabre, for example. This global travel marketplace powers millions of journeys every day. It manages the needs of 400 airlines, 175,000 hotels, 200 tour operators and 425,000 travel agents. With airport check-in kiosks, travel portals, reservation networks, crew scheduling systems and other services in its control, Sabre can’t afford to have any hiccups.
“Travellers want technology to deliver a more seamless experience, especially when managing on-the-go changes and disruptions,” said Mark McSpadden, vice president of emerging technology and products at Sabre.
Using Microsoft’s Cognitive Services and Bot Framework, Sabre developed a chatbot that uses Facebook Messenger to converse with travellers. It answers common queries such as changing a flight reservation and helps tackle the logistical hurdle these adjustments create.
However, as a global company, Sabre’s customers use a host of different languages and phrases, which can make conversation a challenge. To overcome this, Sabre uses technology known as machine learning to solve the problem of trying to understand a customer’s local dialect. This tool now handles many frequently asked questions so travel agents can focus on more challenging issues and improve the overall customer experience.
Dramatically Improved Customer Experience
The use of AI will only continue growing. In Europe, sales from AI enterprise apps are expected to increase from €221 million this year to more than €7.8 billion in 2025, according to Statista.
Microsoft is offering its bot technology, cloud service and data tools so that businesses can build their own bespoke chatbots. Helpful bots are able to learn in a way that reflects actual customer preferences. This will help companies anticipate demands and adjust their operations accordingly.
And while these innovations will help companies stay competitive in a rapidly changing business environment, the ultimate winner of this technology shift will be the customer.
Assisted by AI, shoppers will enjoy a more personalized shopping experience than ever before. Bot technology will in turn free up the time of sales assistants, who can begin to focus on providing the services that get customers hooked to shops and brands, such as their knowledge and passion for the products they’re selling.