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Pivoting on customer support strategies for the future of e-commerce

For many retailers, the response to Covid-19 took the form of a rapid and frantic sprint to scale up e-commerce and related customer service operations. Months down the line, it has become clear this is instead a marathon, if not the ‘new normal’ we constantly hear about.

Across Australia, online shopping grew by 72 per cent in June compared to the same time last year, with mammoth figures being reported by industry heavyweights such as Australia Post which experienced a 90 per cent increase in delivery volumes nation-wide in the first week of August compared to last year, and JB Hi-Fi reporting an almost 50 per cent growth in online sales this year.

This forced movement to the digital world calls on retail leaders to make important technology decisions. In doing so, they must take a long term approach and make adjustments that not only respond to the immediate changes in consumer behaviours and expectations, but will also prepare them for the years ahead

It is therefore time to course-correct those hurried customer support plans put in place at the start of the year. Forrester Research’s 30-60-90-Day Covid-19 Response Plan for Customer Service is a fantastic framework to not only address short term challenges, but plan for a post-pandemic future.

Phase one – preparing for the storm

Some retailers may feel they have already weathered the worst that Covid-19 has had to throw at them, with brick-and-mortar stores starting to see the return of some amount of normalcy, however small. Nevertheless, undergoing the first ‘Storming’ phase of Forrester’s response plan will ensure that they not only return to full customer service capacity, but are better prepared to respond to future crises.

Because customer support and services teams are currently bearing a heavy burden, some of the recommendations lean towards freeing human time and automating some of the processes and providing human assistance only when really needed. Key technologies powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning such as chatbots or Conversational AI systems have evolved in the last few years and now play a key role in streamlining customer support.

Firstly, it is recommended retailers double down on chatbot investments for crisis communications, where speed and convenience are absolutely key to ensuring a positive customer sentiment.

Deploying an intelligent chatbot solution is a great way to afford this, as they can quickly perform a large range of services, including answering simple queries such as store opening times or safety protocols, directing customers to self-serve resources such as refund forms, setting expectations around human agent availability at high-traffic times, and escalating customers to the right human agent if and when necessary.

Taking it a step further, it is recommended that retailers’ interactive voice response (IVR) systems prompt customers to check other digital channels or self-service options to resolve their query without waiting in a call queue or even better, if they know who is calling and what it may be about, then proactively providing them with an update on order status or delivery times as an example. Retailers can also couple with a voice mail solution that offers customers the option to be contacted by a human agent at a future time in the channel that suits them to better manage high-traffic peaks.

In terms of content, it is important to employ prioritisation protocols at every level. This means considering what message should be conveyed first through an IVR or chatbot – retailers may consider proactively addressing extended wait times, delayed delivery, or store closures upfront. Secondly, consider an AI-powered solution that can screen and prioritise a customer based on a particular issue (e.g. if coronavirus related words are identified in their query), or who they are (e.g. new AI solutions can detect whether a customer is elderly, fast-tracking them to a human agent for support).

Before doubling down, however, retailers should always ensure they can commit to being agile in keeping IVR prompts and chatbots up-to-date, particularly as the state of the pandemic and related retail regulations change so quickly. These customer service technologies should always reflect the current state of the situation. The key here is to work with a provider that can bring strong AI concepts to the learning-loop that enables the chat-bot to be more effective without significant human input.

Phase two: optimising operations

Many retailers are now emerging from the first wave of the pandemic, ready to reflect and apply their learnings around the importance of digital engagement in the new customer service landscape.

Retailers that plan to operate on significantly reduced human agent capacity for the foreseeable future, must consider a tight, omni-channel customer service solution that allows customers to seamlessly shift between digital channels; from chatbot to assisted messaging, and from in-app capability or Apple Business chat to Facebook Messenger etc. The challenge for all organisations here is in maintaining a frictionless and personalised customer journey across all channels, preventing the customer from having to constantly re-identify themselves or re-explain their issue.

This is where technologies including AI, machine learning, and biometric authentication, come in handy. For example, voice biometrics analyses more than a 1000 unique voice characteristics, where behavioural biometrics assess minute details including how an individual holds their phone or how they type.

These technologies can be used to immediately validate someone’s identity based on how they sound or behave, meaning human agents can identify a customer immediately, and start personalising the interaction from the outset. This also provides agents with a tool to quickly identify potential fraudsters and scammers. For those retailers that require the handling of sensitive financial or personal information such as account log-ins, credit card information, or identity verification when providing customer service, this is a game-changer.

Phase three: preparing for customer support in the future

The pandemic is a catalyst for lasting change to customer service in the retail sector, and a shift from a reactive to a proactive mindset among retailers regarding innovation. More disruption may occur in the future, and customers are unlikely to be as accommodating and forgiving the next time around, now that a precedence has been set.

While digital interactions aren’t a new phenomenon, there has been a mass decline of face-to-face communication between retailers and their customers, who have become more comfortable with messaging, live chat and web channels than ever before.

In light of this, engagement strategies must be re-examined to determine if each channel is fully equipped to manage this new situation. Retailers must ask themselves – have we struggled to handle traffic peaks or support remote agents because of our current tech stack? Can our chatbot be made more intelligent with AI to resolve more queries faster and with less human intervention? Are our digital channels compatible to allow seamless cross-platform customer support? Are our agents’ technology skills up to scratch?

In addition, remote workforces are now accepted as a long-term fixture for many customer support teams. In fact, more than one in five Australian business leaders anticipate at least half of their employees will work remotely after Covid-19, on either a full or part-time basis. Retailers with remote teams must therefore ensure they are providing agents with the tools for securely and seamlessly delivering customer service, but also for coaching and collaboration that would usually happen in an office setting. Again, AI can support agents by suggesting responses to customers based on company policy, customer history and behaviour.

Finally, measurement and reporting metrics must be refined to reflect the new interaction realities. For example, if a retailer has beefed up digital channels to redirect call traffic, quality control and performance measurement should reflect this – there’s no point setting KPIs around misrouted calls, call times or hang-ups if there has been a shift to digital lead strategy where agents are only handling escalated issues that are naturally complicated and take more time to resolve. Instead, a measurement of how many enquiries were resolved without the need for a live agent and the resulting customer satisfaction may be a better measurement of success.

Now is the time for retailers to reassess their customer support strategies and apply learnings from the past months to ensure they are not only better prepared for future crises, but also for the future of retail. Breaking down these three phases provides retailers with a roadmap to the technology decisions that will help adapt their businesses to new customers’ expectations and create a competitive edge for their brand.

* Robert Schwarz is, MD ANZ at Nuance Communications.

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