Leveraging robotics in the retail customer experience

When most executives think about the role of robots in improving the customer experience they tend to think about Robotic Process Automation (RPA). RPA takes fairly repetitive processes, such as managing a loyalty database, and automates them. We might call the system robotic, but RPA is often just software advisors doing specific tasks over and over again.

RPA might not feature ‘real’ robots, but retail is one industry where real devices recognisable as robots are becoming an important tool beyond just process automation alone. In fact there are many specific areas of the retail customer experience where robots are already being used or are being tested.

  • Warehouse logistics: last year Target added robots to one of their biggest distribution centres in California. Now the robots can autonomously stack and move boxes around in the warehouse and keep track of where everything has been stored.
  • Fulfilment: the Hudson’s Bay department store company in Ontario is using the Perfect Pick system at their main fulfilment centre. The system is the height of a warehouse and spans 16 aisles. It can hold over a million individual items and any request for a product can be delivered inside 30 seconds using small robots that bring the items to the operator.
  • In-store product selection: when you want to offer more products to customers than it is possible to display. For example, the Best Buy store in Manhattan features a robotic selection system allowing customers to use a screen to select from over 15,000 products such as DVDs, CDs, and games. The products are delivered to the customer as if they are using a giant vending machine.
  • Customer greeting: the famous Pepper robot designed by SoftBank has been proposed as a solution for customer greeting, answering customer questions, and even keeping people company in care homes. SoftBank proved the power of Pepper by running a phone store last year in Tokyo where customers were only assisted by Pepper.
  • Guiding customers: the Lowe’s home improvement chain has a record of innovation and they are already testing a robot called the Lowebot. It greets customers at the store entrance and if the customer asks for a specific product it can take them to the correct in-store location and provide product information.

The use of robots in retail might seem futuristic, but these are all areas where robotics is already in use. There are many developing areas where robots could be deployed in future. Tracking inventory and stock levels on store displays is a good example. Fashion retailers have found tools like RFID useful for this, but in a supermarket environment it’s harder to keep track of individual tins of food or bottles on shelves. Retailers, such as Target, are testing robots that can walk the aisles checking stock levels and ordering shelf stockers to replenish the missing items.

Almost all these robotic initiatives have a direct impact on CX. Whether it is ensuring that a delivery can be fulfilled faster or helping the customer to find a product in-store even when they cannot find a member of staff, these initiatives make the retail experience smoother and faster. Although many of these ideas and experiments are still hidden away in warehouses, I think the robots are coming in-store to a retail brand near you soon! What do you think of the potential of bots in customer service? Leave a comment below and let me know, or get in touch on LinkedIn.


A retailer’s guide to driving modern customer experiences

What are the modern customer experiences expected by retail customers today and how do online customers differ from those using apps or a website? Recent analysis published in Retail Customer Experience attempted to unpick this question and create some general guidelines for retailers.

There are some fairly standard CX trends and expectations shared across most brands in retail:

  • We must offer an innovative and exciting online shopping experience
  • We must personalise the relationship with our customer so relevant offers and discounts can be shared at an appropriate time in a way that improves the customer relationship
  • We must improve the in-store experience so it does not feel anonymous when compared to the app or online experience
  • We must communicate with the customer using the channels they choose when they want to communicate
  • We must do all this whilst still offering great value and not letting technology get in the way of good service

Combining all these expectations into a single unified strategy is often called omni-channel for short. Communicating on the same channels as the customer and offering a range of shopping options across multiple channels, including in-store, is the expectation. But the Retail Customer Experience analysis argues that brands need to move on, they argue that the omni-channel target has moved.

The target should not be to capture data from various customer devices and to then formulate a picture of customer behaviour as it happened. It should be possible to create a flow of data from all these customer interactions and communications and to then predict what the customer will do, or want next.

If your data analysis shows that a customer has regular shopping habits, use that knowledge to create time-limited offers focused on the times they like to go shopping. By embracing your suppliers and partners in the wider value chain it should be possible to gather enough data to know what your customer likes, when they like to shop, when they cannot accept deliveries and what they buy at different times of the year. With this information you should be able to start creating a predictive omni-channel that anticipates what the customer will want next so you can deliver it before even being asked.

What do you think about the evolution of omni-channel retail into a real-time predictive omni-channel? Is omni-channel essential for delivering a great CX? Is it realistic or are too many brands still struggling to just offer a complete omni-channel experience at present? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment here, or get in touch on LinkedIn.


How will AI change the role of the customer advisor?

Much has been written about the evolution of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence and how these technologies will impact the customer experience, particularly in retailers where in-store and online customer advice is so important. Opinions vary from those who believe that the technology is advanced enough to replace human sales advisors to those who believe that the human touch cannot ever be replaced.

I believe the truth lies somewhere in between. To start with the most natural way to interact with a customer service advisor is by a voice call or personal interaction in-store. Other channels, such as social networks, are becoming important, but voice is still the dominant customer service channel and commercially available voice recognition systems are not yet completely reliable.

Tools such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple Siri are showing what is possible when we talk directly to computers, but none of these systems offer the completely natural speech a customer can use when talking to a person.

It’s possibly just a matter of time for this to improve, but even when customers can interact directly with an AI system by talking to it, there will still be a value in having human advisors that can read the situation and customer requirements - empathy and understanding remain very human values. This is why I think the main area of focus for these technologies is how they can support and boost the capabilities of the humans interacting with customers.

The computers may not be very good at reading individual situations, but they are good at storing information and matching patterns and trends. Take a look at how Atom Bank is using Machine Learning to remember every question, every customer has ever asked the customer service team - with the solution. For basic queries the AI system can detect what the customer needs and can offer the most likely solution. For more complex enquiries, where a human advisor is involved, the system helps the customer service advisor by suggesting solutions based on this collective experience of helping other customers. It means that the advisor will almost always have the right answer to a customer question.

Companies such as banks and retailers that need to offer advice both online and in-store to customers can create an immediate advantage by exploring these technologies. They are not taking over the customer service process, but they also cannot be ignored. These tools can ensure that your advisors always have the right answer immediately, even if it is a question they have never faced before.

What do you think of the potential of AI in customer service? Leave a comment below and let me know, or get in touch on LinkedIn.


Why it’s crucial for retailers to understand in-store behavior

91% of retail activity still takes place inside stores, yet much of the attention on customer experience innovation has been focused on how to personalise websites and apps. The most profitable customers are those who switch easily between the in-store and online environment. But how well do you understand the behaviour of those customers you can actually see in-store?

Analysis in Retail Customer Experience recently suggested that 79% of customers appreciate it when a retailer gives them a discount or recommendation based on their purchase history. This is relatively easy when online because the customer is usually signed in, but how can retailers start to approach this level of personal service in-store?

The approach will change from one retailer to the next, but I believe there are three key steps that all of them need to take to make this work in-store:

  1. Accept the importance of omni-channel service. Study the best practices and experience of retailers that are further ahead on this journey. Case study after case study shows that by blending the online and offline experience retailers create more valuable customers - in particular when data analysis allows those customers who use both channels to be the focus of attention.
  2. Merge the experience. What are you offering online that makes the service better or more personal? How can you introduce this to the in-store environment and demonstrate to in-store customers that you can offer them the same personal service and great deals?
  3. Make it essential. Just launching an app with a few offers will not tempt most customers to walk in a store and login. You need to think about how an app or mobile website can connect the in-store customer to that online data filled with preferences and past shopping behaviour - they need an enticing reason to login from the store. Retailers that allow customers to avoid checkout lines by using the app understand that it’s this feature that tempts customers to login and therefore they can also have a more personal experience too.

Coffee giant Starbucks has had enormous success with their own app because it allows the customer to order a coffee and then pay for it before they even arrive at the cafe. This means that their in-store experience is dramatically improved - they can arrive and pick-up their order immediately. No waiting for the Barista and no waiting to pay. It’s this kind of advantage that you need to consider - using apps in a way that allows personalisation, but also directly improves the in-store experience.

In-store and online service have often been considered to be entirely different functions. Often they are managed completely separately and to customers it can appear as if the two are competing and not just a part of the same company. Take that first step and acknowledge that an omni-channel strategy is essential and you will be starting along the path to creating a greatly improved in-store customer experience. Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment here, or get in touch on LinkedIn.


How bricks and mortar retailers can benefit from shoppers’ e-commerce habits

The relationship between bricks and mortar retailers in the High Street and online retailers has often been presented as adversarial - they threaten each other. In fact, many retail commentators have called out specific customer behaviours, such as showrooming, as threats to the traditional in-store experience.

Showrooming occurs when a customer browses in-store, looks at products, asks for advice, then leaves the store and buys the same product online at the cheapest website they can find. However, there is also the opposite behaviour, known as webrooming, where a customer does all their research into the product online and walks into a store knowing exactly what they want - they just want to see it in person before making the purchase.

This customer behaviour implies that the in-store and online experience is in fact more closely connected than many retail observers think. How can retailers with branch networks actually benefit from the habits of online shoppers rather than behaving as if the online and in-store environment is competing?

The answer is to bring the in-store and online experience closer together. In the US, 59% of retailers believe that their omni-channel customers (those who buy both online and in-store) are more valuable than customers who only ever buy in-store or online. Rather than treating online and in-store as separate types of retail, smart retailers are finding that the best customers are those who sometimes shop online and sometimes shop in-store.

Connecting the online experience to in-store has some very specific benefits that may not be obvious at first, but are important. Online shoppers need to login to a site. The retailer knows their shopping history and preferences. This means that the online experience is highly personalised with relevant deals, offers, and recommendations based on how the customer has purchased in the past.

None of this happens in-store because the customer walks into a shop and nobody knows who they are. Some customers are starting to feel that shopping in-store is a very anonymous experience compared to being online. Therefore we are seeing that some retailers are starting to address this issue by creating apps that can enhance the in-store experience.

Walmart is a great example. Not only does their app let the customer have access to more detailed information on everything they sell, it also allows the customer to pay for their shopping with their phone. By using the app the customer gets personalised recommendations while they are in the store, they capture all their loyalty points in one place, and they can avoid having to wait at the checkout line. Because the app creates a genuinely improved experience there is a great incentive for shoppers to use it - the customer gets a better experience and Walmart gets to know more about their customers, improving the offers they can send to the customer in future.

Just launching an app doesn’t bring the online experience closer to the in-store experience, but providing the customer with an app that enhances the in-store experience - avoiding checkouts for example - can really encourage more omni-channel shoppers to use your stores. Your online and in-store offering to customers don’t need to compete when they can be designed to enhance and improve each other.

Webhelp recently carried out research on online consumer behaviours within the retail Industry. Five hundred UK retail customers were surveyed and we’ve shared the results of this research here. Explore our research in our handy new infographic which outlines our findings in a bit more detail. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think, or get in touch on LinkedIn.


What are the upcoming technology trends in retail?

The rate of change in customer experience expectation appears to accelerate every year. A decade ago most customer service managers were overseeing a contact centre that processed voice calls and emails after the customer had made a purchase. Now, the customer experience needs to be managed across multiple channels on a far more complex customer journey that blends into the sales and marketing process.

Added to this increased complexity in business processes is a great deal of technological change, from the additional communication channels to the underlying customer database and CRM systems. Designing the processes needed to support your customers today can involve Big Data, Virtual Reality, and interactions online on dozens of networks and channels. It's no longer just focused on answering the phone.

Retailers are facing a technological challenge. Online shopping is increasingly sophisticated and customers expect more help and advice in-store. Customers are increasingly developing a relationship with the brands they like that was unthinkable a decade ago. Imagine asking your local supermarket for ideas on how making a curry back then, yet today it’s entirely normal to send a tweet asking for recipe ideas and the supermarket brand will respond.

There are many retail trends that rely on technology, but I believe that the three broad areas where we will see change in the next 15 months - to the end of 2018 - can be summarised as:

  • Taking the store into the home: instead of just shopping online from your mobile device or laptop, it will be more common to virtually experience the store. This will largely be driven by the fact that 2017 has seen many millions of games consoles sold with Virtual Reality capability. Both the Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox are VR-ready and by 2018 tens of millions of homes will have a VR system at home. Some might ask why you would want to virtually visit a supermarket, but think about booking a wedding venue, or hotel, or holiday resort, or planning a new kitchen, or redesigning your garden. There are many services and products that could benefit enormously from offering a virtual experience and we are now getting to the point where many people will have the systems at home so this becomes feasible.
  • Taking the products into the home: many retailers that offer either expensive or bulky items will explore ways to let customers experience their products in their home before making a purchase. The success of the Pokémon GO game last year showed how people already understand Augmented Reality and brands such as Ikea are already exploring this. You don’t need to buy a chair from Ikea and get it home to see how it will look, the AR system allows you to take any product from the store and to see how it will look in your home. Apple has designed a platform to make this type of AR system easy for retailers, so I expect many to follow Ikea. Soon it will be unimaginable to buy a product for your home without experiencing how it will look first.
  • Connecting in-store experience with online: in-store shoppers need to get the same personal service they get online. Apps need to offer in-store shoppers ideas, recommendations, and discounts based on their preferences and in-store location. Apps need to capture their spending and offer easy ways to redeem loyalty points. They need to offer loyal in-store customers advantages over regular customers who are not using the app - such as avoiding the checkout line by paying inside the app or access to special events. Omnichannel shoppers are much more valuable to retailers and this tight connection of the online and in-store experience will be an important trend in the coming year.

Other changes, such as improved knowledge of the in-store location of a customer, will feed into these broad areas I mentioned, but I think that in the short term, these are the areas where we will see the most immediate change. In particular, bringing the online experience into the store and creating an improved omni-channel will probably be the biggest priority of all as there are clearly defined benefits for the customer experience and the brand - these customers spend more.

But what do you think? It’s easy to list a long list of technologies that will change retail in the next couple of years, but what would you list as the top three that will make a change by the end of 2018? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think, or get in touch on LinkedIn.


Online Shopping Makes UK Consumers Happy

 

  • 98% said they were satisfied with their most recent purchase
  • 94% said their customer experience was either good or excellent 

Online retailers are definitely getting it right in the UK according to the latest consumer research from global customer experience expert, Webhelp.

The company asked 500 UK adults about their experiences of online shopping. 95% of those surveyed had purchased something online in the previous six months and only 2% of them had experienced a problem with their order. And a staggering 94% rated their customer experience as either good or excellent.

For those few who did experience a problem with their order, the most likely cause of the issue was either delivery or payment. This suggests online retailers need to do more to make the payment process simple and easy to avoid missing out on those crucial sales.

Resolution of issues was also something the retailers did well, with only one person surveyed saying they had been unable to resolve their issue.

Overall 94% said their customer experience had been either good or excellent, but that varies quite a bit across the various groups surveyed. The least likely to be happy were those earning less than £10k per annum. 14% of this group rated their customer experience as just fair. The most difficult groups to please were the 18-24s and those earning more than £40k pa. In both of these groups 2% of people rated their customer experience as poor. The most easily pleased were the over 65s, 100% of whom rated their customer experience as either good or excellent.

This is in stark contrast to global research commissioned by Dyn and published on http://www.information-age.com/getting-balance-right-privacy-and-e-health-123459017 in Feb, 2015. This stated that two-thirds of shoppers were unhappy with their online customer experience. Clearly much progress has been made in that time, at least in the UK.

David Turner, CEO of Webhelp UK, India and SA, said: “It is clear that many online retailers are getting things right as far as the UK consumer is concerned, but there is still work to be done. According to our survey payments are causing some people issues and that is something that will be of concern to the retailers. And even though the customer experience in most cases was good or excellent, there is definitely room for improvement, particularly among specific sections of the population.

“In such a competitive environment, it is vital that online retailers ensure they keep hold of as many customers as possible. Ensuring the purchase process is smooth and that the customer experience is great will mean those customers keep coming back.”

 

Click here to view our infographic which outlines our findings in a bit more detail. To view the full survey report, click here.

 


Why retailers must engage digitally

Shopping used to be simple. You drove your car to the shopping mall or town centre, parked, visited some shops, then packed everything in the car and went home. Now retailers are creating personalised online shopping experiences and apps offering Augmented Reality functionality. Is there really a need for all this digital engagement or are retailers just getting caught up in a wave of hype?

Unfortunately for the traditionalists, I don’t think this is hype. The online shopping experience has grown to be preferred by many customers exactly because it can be more personal. When a retailer knows what you have bought in the past, and all your likes and dislikes, then they can create recommendations and offers that are laser-focused. Walking into a store can feel extremely anonymous when you have become used to online shopping.

And some technologies may create a digital transformation in their section of retail. Look at the furniture business for a good example. It is difficult to know how that attractive table and chairs in the store will really look like at home until it has been paid for and delivered. If it doesn’t work out, then bad luck. Ikea is offering an Augmented Reality app that lets customers virtually place any of their furniture in the home without even needing to visit a store.

But digital engagement is not just about innovation and personalisation. There is solid evidence showing that customers who shop in-store and also online are much more valuable to retailers than shoppers who only ever shop in-store or online. These omni-channel shoppers should be nurtured by making it easier for them to use and blend both channels.

As this Harvard Business Review research demonstrates, this may require a strategic shift in how the retailer uses their space in-store. Omni-channel shoppers generally spend 4% more in-store and 10% more online than single channel shoppers. The in-store environment may need to be redesigned to support shoppers who are also comfortable online - easy access to the loyalty scheme and personal offers or recommendations are particularly important.

Retailers have often feared the ‘showrooming’ effect where shoppers test products in-store as they gather information, then order online from the cheapest seller. In fact, many customers are actually ‘webrooming’ today - they gather information online and come into a store to make the final checks and purchase. In many areas of retail, such as car dealers, this has made a dramatic difference to the sales process. Customers often walk into car dealers today knowing exactly what they want because they have been researching their options for months.

The implication is that if you are not a digitally engaged retailer then you cannot meet the customer expectations of today. There is now a symbiotic relationship where the online experience is supporting the in-store experience and vice versa. Retail leaders will focus on their omni-channel shoppers to ensure they deliver a great experience online and in-store. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think, or get in touch on LinkedIn.


Is there a growing gap between retailers and customers on fast shipping?

Do you remember when ordering something for delivery would almost always mean agreeing to wait a month for delivery? ‘Please Allow 28 Days For Delivery’ was a standard phrase in the small print that allowed companies to safely take a week or two delivering your order. So long as they got it to you in a month, they were in the clear.

Now contrast that with the first Amazon drone delivery in the UK. Last December a customer in Cambridge clicked on the order button and within 13 minutes the product was delivered to their home. Amazon packed the order immediately and sent it by a drone that landed in the garden of the customer.

Drone deliveries are still not common; although Amazon has now proven that if the weather is good and the customer has a landing space then they are possible. What has become normalised though is our expectation of immediate delivery after ordering. The days of waiting day after day for a product to be delivered are long gone.

The Amazon Prime loyalty scheme allows Prime members to now order products for delivery on the same day. Even without drone deliveries there is now an expectation from customers that a product can be delivered within hours. And it is not just Amazon making this promise, Tesco can deliver your groceries on the same day if you order by lunchtime. Argos can deliver same-day if you order before 6pm.

However, just because customers are getting used to instant gratification from some retailers does not mean that everyone is offering this level of service. A YouGov survey earlier this year found that 1 in 5 British retailers cannot even offer next-day delivery lets alone same-day. This research also showed that while British customers have higher expectations for delivery times, around half are not prepared to pay extra for faster delivery - it is expected to be a part of the service.

Most retailers probably feel under siege. Amazon is redefining delivery expectations and customers are getting used to same-day delivery, yet most retailers do not have the logistic systems in place to support this level of service. As YouGov noted, many cannot even deliver a product within a day of the order being placed.

I think the more important angle here for a great customer experience is to define the delivery time. If it’s going to take two days, then make it clear, define and agree the time with the customer. The old days of covering your back by saying it may take anything up to 4 weeks to arrive are clearly not acceptable today, but most customers don’t yet have an expectation that their order can be shipped inside minutes either. Be open and clear and ensure the customer knows when their order will arrive - then make it happen. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think, or get in touch on LinkedIn.


Is there a growing gap between retailers and customers on fast shipping?

Do you remember when ordering something for delivery would almost always mean agreeing to wait a month for delivery? ‘Please Allow 28 Days For Delivery’ was a standard phrase in the small print that allowed companies to safely take a week or two delivering your order. So long as they got it to you in a month, they were in the clear.

Now contrast that with the first Amazon drone delivery in the UK. Last December a customer in Cambridge clicked on the order button and within 13 minutes the product was delivered to their home. Amazon packed the order immediately and sent it by a drone that landed in the garden of the customer.

Drone deliveries are still not common; although Amazon has now proven that if the weather is good and the customer has a landing space then they are possible. What has become normalised though is our expectation of immediate delivery after ordering. The days of waiting day after day for a product to be delivered are long gone.

The Amazon Prime loyalty scheme allows Prime members to now order products for delivery on the same day. Even without drone deliveries there is now an expectation from customers that a product can be delivered within hours. And it is not just Amazon making this promise, Tesco can deliver your groceries on the same day if you order by lunchtime. Argos can deliver same-day if you order before 6 pm.

However, just because customers are getting used to instant gratification from some retailers does not mean that everyone is offering this level of service. A YouGov survey earlier this year found that 1 in 5 British retailers cannot even offer next-day delivery lets alone same-day. This research also showed that while British customers have higher expectations for delivery times, around half are not prepared to pay extra for faster delivery - it is expected to be a part of the service.

Most retailers probably feel under siege. Amazon is redefining delivery expectations and customers are getting used to same-day delivery, yet most retailers do not have the logistic systems in place to support this level of service. As YouGov noted, many cannot even deliver a product within a day of the order being placed.

I think the more important angle here for a great customer experience is to define the delivery time. If it’s going to take two days, then make it clear, define and agree the time with the customer. The old days of covering your back by saying it may take anything up to 4 weeks to arrive are clearly not acceptable today, but most customers don’t yet have an expectation that their order can be shipped inside minutes either. Be open and clear and ensure the customer knows when their order will arrive - then make it happen. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think, or get in touch on LinkedIn.