“Voicemail is not a good answer for retail,” said Ray Pugsley, owner of Potomac River Running in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. In his nine sports gear and apparel shops in Washington, D.C. and nearby northern Virginia, “our business model is about giving customers very personalized service. That gets difficult when a store gets busy, and if you add phone calls on top, it’s impossible,” he added.
When customers reach voicemail and leave a message, they expect a response, but Pugsley found that his employees weren’t good enough at following up. “We just couldn’t get it right and there were a lot of angry people. It was just causing problems,” he said. The situation got so bad that he shut off the voicemail function altogether in the mid-2000’s.
Applying AI To The Voicemail Void
That didn’t change until March 2019, when Potomac River Running deployed Numa, an answering service enabled by artificial intelligence (AI). The service can respond to common questions such as store hours or whether certain brands are carried by the retailer. If callers opt in, they receive their answers by text.
When the system is unable to provide an automated answer, it notifies customers that someone will get back to them, translates the voicemail into text and sends the message to the associates who are designated to respond at the retailer. At Potomac River Running, the texts go to a computer in each store that can be seen by all associates, and the texts also go to the store manager. Pugsley and his IT head get copies of every text that is sent to every store.
“Our staff is trained to be constantly looking for messages. When they see something there, they call or text back,” he said.
One example of how the Numa solution has saved time for Potomac River Running is with the pre-race materials the company gives out before its brand-building running races. Participants often like to pick up these materials in advance, but that had turned into a telephone nightmare. “Hundreds of people will call just to find out when they can get their packets,” Pugsley explained. With Numa, the system responds without any action needed on the part of Pugsley or his team.
Surprising benefits have come from callers’ ability to receive text responses through Numa. “After people have texted us once, they just keep doing it,” Pugsley said. “Most of our employees are Millennials and they love it, too.”
Texts Help Maintain One-To-One Interactions During COVID-19
Since the pandemic started, text communications have been invaluable in replacing the one-to-one interactions the retailer was known for. “Texting has enabled us to interact in new ways and to increase our digital footprint,” he added. “Texting is obviously going to be an important part of our omnichannel business going forward.”
Even though Potomac River Running has an e-Commerce site, Pugsley found that many digital sales are being driven by texting. “People want to ask questions and have a conversation,” he said. For example, when a customer who purchased a running shoe several years ago doesn’t remember its model number, he or she can take a picture of it and text it to the store associate. The associate can tell them if the shoe is still being made, or help them select one that’s similar.
“This generation is the texting generation,” said Tasso Roumeliotis, Numa CEO and Founder. “We’re going to see a huge percentage of retail conversations happening by text. In addition, more and more people are messaging companies from Google search. In the future, not having the ability to accept a text message will be like not having a web site.”