Achieving The Right Balance In Retail – High Tech And Human Touch

  • April 11, 2018 at 1:51 PM EDT
  • By Kim Houlne, Working Solutions
0aaKim Houlne WorkingSolutions
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There’s an ever-so-thin line between customer engagement and enragement. Wouldn’t you agree?

Between the two are many tipping points, or rather tripping points, shaping retail experiences today — whether in-store, online or mobile. That’s apparent as buying becomes more personalized and shopping experiential.

It all has to do with how well touch points and interfaces integrate, and in turn, ingratiate customers. With call centers being core to many retail operations, success requires the right blend of artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligent agent (IA) to elevate sales and service.


This merging of machines and humans occurs as retailers reinvent and reinvest to win over consumers with a “digital-first” mentality who also expect “I-me-mine” service—or IM². For retailers, and other businesses as well, it all adds up to this: AI + IA = IM².

Facing Multiple Challenges

AI and IA must then complement each other — with automation segueing into customer care by human agents. An uninterrupted flow of free commerce from chatbot to video chat, so to speak.

Nowadays, consumers prefer the convenience of self-service. When shopping online, automated service works well for simple transactions, especially when buying familiar brands. You know what you want. No assistance required.

According to IBM Watson®, experts predict “by 2020, 85% of all customer interactions will be handled without a human agent.” Only two years away? That’s rather ambitious, and frankly, not the only thing on retailers’ minds.

From my talks with them, they face multiple challenges of modernizing stores, mobilizing online business and fulfilling IM² expectations. While forward-thinking and integral, automation alone isn’t the whole answer.       

Achieving A Tech-Touch Balance

Now, the same IBM Watson piece also states that AI-enabled services will “free up call center employees from routine tier-1 support requests so they can focus on more complex tasks.”

On that point, I’d agree. The Harvard Business Review (HBR), in fact, made a case for intelligent agents, based on its global survey of service reps. In its findings, however, HBR also cautioned that companies are overinvesting in self-service technology at the expense of frontline customer service. A bad idea.

Here’s why: Agents, who are often customers, provide insight from their own experiences. They know the products being sold firsthand — such as the fit and wear of a particular shoe. They’ve walked the proverbial mile in the brand. So far, I’ve never seen a chatbot wearing Michael Kors sandals.

To serve savvy consumers, retailers know they need to balance high tech and human touch. Think techno-tender service — digital and delighting, all at once. A tall order in-store, online or mobile. It calls for smooth transitions between AI and IA to deliver great experiences and earn repeat business.

Key elements — such as data intelligence, chatbots and video chat with agents — can deliver sought-after, seamless satisfaction. They must work in tandem, anticipating needs and then exceeding expectations.  

Data Intelligence: Shopping Patterns

It’s hard to engage customers without first understanding their shopping habits. Smart retailers mine their data. They analyze consumer purchases, identify patterns and capitalize on buyer preferences.   

For instance, regional grocer Harps Food Stores uses AI to study shopper transactions, according to Drug Store News. From them, the supermarket chain determines the most appropriate goods to promote. Its Vice President of Marketing says this data benefits the retailer in several ways — better promotions, pricing and profitability.

For comparison, contact center operations do similar analyses. Using workforce management, a retail client’s data, such as call volumes mapped to sales cycles, are reviewed. This business intelligence enables accurate forecasts to scale agents year-round to handle fluctuations and serve customers.

Chatbots: “Conversational Commerce”

Chatbots continue to gain ground as development costs decrease and acceptance increases, as bots become preferred communications for WhatsApp and others, according to Chatbots Magazine. The idea fueling AI here is the desire for “conversational commerce,” as it’s sometimes called.  

Last September, Microsoft posted a retail piece highlighting Macy’s bot service for mobile and online service. Omnichannel shopping motivates Macy’s responsiveness.  

The retailer’s bot handles routine requests, with agents at the ready. “Live agents still play a very important role in Macy’s customer journey,” Microsoft states. “If the virtual agent is unable to answer a question, it transfers the customer to a service agent to continue the conversation.”

Again, it’s all about achieving a proper AI/IA balance, with blended solutions and smooth handoffs from high tech to humans. Granted, the line of demarcation no doubt will shift as technology develops.

Live/Video Chat: Intelligent Conversations

Okay, say the situation is too complex. And the chatbot, no matter how enabled, isn’t programmed to give an answer. Time now for a tried-and-true live agent. Right? Yes, but with qualifications.

Why? Because the customer now expects to talk with a “thinking agent” — not a rote-reader using scripted responses. That’s true for live chat and especially so for face-to-face video chats.

The demand is sure there. Surveys show customers believe live chat and video chat are more efficient, offering them better, faster answers. Chat also drives repeat business to a company’s web site.  

Citing Idealo research, Forbes contributor Haniya Rae writes “…customers who’d worked with a live chat representative found the highest level of service satisfaction at 73% when compared to 61% by email and 44% by phone.”

Best remember, technology has upped the ante at both ends of end-to-end. By its very nature, artificial intelligence requires intelligent agents to interact with the latest IT — and to do it while empathizing with customers. AI and IA must be in sync to ensure IM²-level service.

Plus, customers are sharper than ever. Agents should be knowledgeable and articulate when connecting with them, whatever the medium. The good news: Whether live or video, chat provides the personalization and engagement that customers seek from retailers today.

As chief executive of Working Solutions, Kim Houlne pioneered on-demand contact center outsourcing with remote workforces in 1996. Today, the company’s distributed network of 110,000+ registered agents handle sales, customer care and tech support for diverse clients.

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