Customer service isn't just about having a pleasant attitude or adopting a "the customer is always right" policy. Those things are important, but they're only a few of the things a company needs to do to meet the needs of its patrons. Attitude and a willingness to serve become almost irrelevant if a store's shelves don't have the right merchandise, or a retailer does not offer the delivery or pickup model that meets a customer's needs.
Currently, most retailers try to figure out the right mix to keep their customers happy using old-school techniques like observation and satisfaction surveys. Only 7% of retailers currently use artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance customer service. But that's going to change: Another 48% plan to start using artificial intelligence technologies with 3 years according to the 2018 Customer Experience/Unified Commerce Survey.
How does it work?
This isn't about having robot workers do jobs that were once done by humans (though some of that will happen). AI helps companies analyze data in ways that allow retailers to make strategic changes. AI currently helps digital retailers with purchase suggestions and product recommendations; it can also be used to identify what time of day to make which offer to which customers, or place deals in front of consumers at times they're most likely to respond well to them.
"The convergence of AI with traditional customer service has the ability to transform the shopping experience," said BRP President Perry Kramer in a press release. "AI offers the ability to exploit the vast amounts of customer preference and transaction data gathered and reach a much larger group of consumers on a personal level to enhance the customer experience."
Amazon already uses AI to make purchase suggests based on how consumers answer certain questions and their past histories. Sephora uses a Kik chatbot to deliver conversational commerce "by offering a one-on-one mobile chat experience to offer ideas on new makeup looks and identify products in tutorials to offer customers a better shopping experience," according to the BRP press release.
The challenge -- and it's a line that has not been fully fleshed out yet -- is that consumers may not know they are interacting with an AI. Some may not be happy to find out that the helpful "person" on the other end of their conversation is actually a robot/AI.
"Transparency is a big discussion for AI. Do you want the customer to think they're speaking with a real human being or should you disclose that this is a conversation with Watson or some other AI technology," said BRP Senior Vice President Jeffrey Neville in the press release. "That's a decision retailers have to make right now, as AI using voice is probably going to mess up the conversation at some point, and the customer is going to realize that they're talking to a computer."
AI is coming
While exactly how AI will be used remains to be determined, it's inevitable that it will be used. If a "robot" can help you identify the right shade of makeup or push you toward a purchase you'll be happy with, then companies will figure out how to make that work.
AI won't entirely replace humans in retail. They will, however, change how work is performed, in the same way that self checkout has created a position for a customer service person who helps people use self checkout.
Customer service improves when a company can use data to better meet the needs of its shoppers. AI allows for that to happen, and while the road may be bumpy, it's one that more companies will travel in the near future.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.