How Does Your AI Customer Support Solution Stack Up in 2021?
In this article we’re deep diving into the specifics and components of what constitutes the minimum measure of a robust, scalable, omnichannel AI customer support solution for retailers and brands in 2021.
The 2020 pandemic forced retailers to innovate at an unprecedented pace, and 2021 promises another year of transition and change.
As we move further into 2021 we’ve seen conversational AI powered digital workers proving themselves to be the ‘essential workers’ of retailers and brands during these unprecedented times post Covid-19.
Given the harrowing year retailers just survived and the myriad of complexities we continue to face in 2021, it’s no surprise that the customer experience is of chief concern for brands.
We’re covering what we see as the most vital types of automation features and customer experience offerings that brands need to implement to be competitive this year.
If you have any questions about the topics in the article, or would just like to try out the Linc platform, schedule a no obligation free demo with one of our customer support automation experts.
Topics we’re covering:
- A knowledge base for new retail scenarios
- Online/offline logistics
- Safety protocols
- SMS messaging
- Video chat integration
- Social chat messaging
- In-store digital
- Beacon alerts for curbside and store pickup services
- Contact-less payment support
- Screen-less interactions
- Heads-up augmented displays
- Learn how digital workers are driving the future of AI powered customer support
- Returns for refund or credit.
- Make-goods and exchanges.
- Promotional code and loyalty rewards redemption
Exploring The Foundational AI Customer Support Components
A knowledge base for new retail scenarios:
Whether training human customer service reps or digital assistants, retailers need a repository of updated and relevant company information to help guide responses.
Not only should sellers account for new offerings such as subscription services when updating their libraries; they should also enhance content about;
Beyond store locations and hours, retailers should list information about such topics as special store services, curbside pickup and locker locations, and available payment options.
Features such as directional maps for in-store navigation, and store appointment or reservation schedulers can help shoppers achieve their in-store goals as efficiently as possible.
By Thanksgiving, 56% of U.S. consumers told Deloitte they still felt anxious about the safety of in-store shopping,signaling that leisurely browsing in the aisles is unlikely to be commonplace In 2021.
Retailers should over-communicate their safety protocols, from mask policies to dressing room closures to reduced occupancy limits.
Offer Exceptional Customer Support Beyond the Big Screen
Not only has the pandemic shifted the proportion of retail sales occurring online; the format and substance of those digital interactions are changing as well.
Without office computers to access, digital shopping is now transient — shifting among devices and following shoppers around their houses, into their cars, and on their forays into stores and common spaces.
This switch to ambient shopping means that customer support, too, must travel wherever shoppers roam.
Flexible design and functionality are only the first requirement. Retailers must also take full advantage of the unique characteristics of different screen sizes — and even prepare to go without screens altogether.
Automated solutions that take into account the device type, location, and shoppers’ personal preferences and proactively offer the right support options can win points for brands.
To Accommodate shoppers everywhere, retailers need to re-imagine customer support for:
Fully 45% of consumers report shopping more on their phones since the onset of the pandemic, according to PwC — and more than 9 in 10 of those consumers predict they’ll continue their increased usage once store closures and social distancing measures end.
That means going well beyond “mobile-first” as a buzzword to take full advantage of smartphone capabilities, from GPS positioning to built-in camera tools to social apps.
In 2020, demand for SMS updates on order fulfillment jumped to 35% of all customers of retailers on the Linc platform — a 40% increase. With nearly-universal open rates and a high degree of immediacy, SMS messages have high potential for re-engagement once orders have been delivered, making personalized replenishment and promotional offers a must.
Video chat integration
With stores of auto dealers instituting virtual ride-along test drives and personal shoppers browsing the aisles with clients on Zoom, the moment has clearly arrived for retailers to leverage in-house product and style experts to deliver VIP consultations.
Social chat messaging
Given that upwards of 95% of social media usage occurs on mobile devices, retail brands would do well to use popular messaging apps to reach shoppers where they gather
Just because shoppers visit stores doesn’t mean they switch off their phones at the threshold — and given safety doubts, mobile tools that help get shoppers in and out of retail outlets quickly are in high demand.
Using Linc’s customer service platform, RFID-blocking wallet maker The Ridge achieved an opt-in rate of more than 20% for post-purchase SMS alerts.
A third of those customers then agreed to receive SMS promotions, setting the stage for future re-engagement and repeat business.
Online Store Hybrid Customer Support Mechanisms Retailers Need to Offer
Beacon alerts for curbside and store pickup services
Retailers can send automated messages as shoppers enter store parking lots to help them navigate to curbside pickup zones or entrances closest to indoor lockers or service counters.
Contactless payment support
Payments using touchless cards or digital wallets that can be tapped or scanned at the point of sale have grown 69% since the pandemic started, according to Forrester and the National Retail Federation, and 94% of merchants expect that growth to be sustained in the future.
Merchants should connect these services to loyalty programs to ensure customers can access points, rewards, and promo codes at checkout as well, boosting loyalty club engagement.
As technology speeds toward an always-connected future, shoppers will rely less and less on screens and keyboards to navigate through shopping experiences — which means that retailers must prepare to offer new modes of customer support that are unmediated by traditional devices.
The New Form Factors to Consider
Shopping-related interactions with Siri, Alexa, et al have grown by 23% since the pandemic started, according to PwC. Retailers should seek customer support solutions that can deliver voice responses based on the same AI-driven engine that powers screen-based interactions.
Shopping via smartwatches and other wearable devices rose 23% since the onset of COVID-19, PwC found, making way for potential delivery of customer support via SMS and voice command.
Heads-up augmented displays
While most augmented-reality shopping tools are designed for smartphone use right now, AR glasses and heads-up displays in cars are on the horizon, making the ability to connect to automated and live chat through mixed-reality environments an imminent need.
Leverage the High-Fidelity Conversational Capabilities of Digital Workers
Given the growing complexity of the path-to-purchase, expanded possibilities for order fulfillment, and uncertainty over store re-openings, it’s no surprise that customer service inquiries have grown more complex since the pandemic began.
The Harvard Business Review found that in the first two weeks of the pandemic alone, in March of 2020, the percentage of inquiries rated “difficult” doubled to 1 in 5 of the overall total.
Simultaneously, the volume of online customer service interactions for retail has jumped significantly, and is likely to stabilize at higher levels than the pre-pandemic era.
Accenture found that;
- 42% of consumers have increased usage of live chat services, whether with live agents or a virtual assistant;
- 43% have increased usage of online consultations surrounding home electronics purchases, and
- 35% have done so for personal styling.
- Over 75% of these consumers say they’ll continue these new habits in the future.
The rising degree of difficulty for customer service interactions requires organization-wide responsiveness and flexibility.
Your automated customer support Interactions must be swift and consistent wherever shoppers choose to engage with the brand, and deliver complete resolution — regardless of how many touchpoints customers are using.
Automated online solutions must solve problems, not just deliver rote information; otherwise, they can be perceived as time wasters that merely stall customers until a human customer service agent can take over.
Technology researcher Forrester predicts that 25% of businesses will achieve significant customer experience gains in the coming year following the organizational shock of the pandemic.
Watch this video with Linc CEO Fang Cheng and Brendan Witcher VP, Principal Analyst Forrester on “How Brands Win Customers Through Individualized Experiences”
Teams that evaluate their crisis response and implement digital and omnichannel strategies to address gaps in their customer support systems will recover their stride quickly, and may even find that consolidating and unifying around the right technologies will result in cost reduction.
When it comes to retail specifically, the trauma COVID-19 wrought on companies’ logistics and supply chain operations is still the leading concern.
Deloitte found that organization-wide, omnichannel digitization and supply chain resilience topped the list of priorities for retail executives, with better data insights on both fronts combining to create a superior online customer experience.
Underpinning these changes is AI-powered automation.
AI helps retailers process the vast amounts of data necessary to power at scale the rich online experiences customers now expect — from eCommerce site analytics to GPS location information to real-time inventory status updates from local stores.
An IBM survey found that within the year;
- 85% of retailers plan to use AI-powered automation for supply chain planning,
- while 79% will use it to derive customer intelligence.
AI will be especially crucial for online customer service, which Forrester predicts will see a 40% increase in interactions in 2021, over and above the surge in demand retailers already experienced at the outset of the pandemic.
While high volume may prompt retailers to implement the nearest chatbot app they can find, the complexity of the times demands a comprehensive solution.
Given the fluid nature of retail operations, the growing array of transaction and fulfillment options, and changing customer priorities, retailers need full-fledged digital workers that go beyond order lookups to adapt their responses to conversational cues in real time.
How Retailers Need to Meet Customer Service Challenges in 2021 Through Digital Interactions
Swift: Retailers must be able to deliver apt responses quickly. Nine in 10 consumers seek an immediate response when contacting customer service, HubSpot found, and 60% reported that 10 minutes was the maximum time they’d allow for receiving a response. Automation is all but essential to nimbly provide support at scale, especially for retailers whose human customer support staff has been downsized or hours reduced due to COVID remote working constraints.
Adaptive: Gone are the days when scripted answers or simple shipping status lookups sufficed to resolve inquiries. Now, live chat solutions — whether staffed by digital workers or customer service reps — must adapt responses to reflect the context of the conversation and the information provided by the shopper.
Moreover, customer service interactions must take into account not just the input explicitly provided within the chat, but also factor in such implicit data as location (based on smartphone GPS information) and past purchases.
Integrating contextual knowledge into chat interactions enables:
In-Chat Recommendations and Clienteling
Past interactions with the brand, current browsing session data, and access to real-time inventory and location information can help live chat agents proactively guide shoppers to relevant product picks.
Access to shoppers’ fulfillment preferences as well as organization-wide inventory transparency enable chat agents to pick the least costly method that fits the customer’s timeframe and budget. Integration with delivery appointment and in-store reservation schedulers help bring chat sessions to full resolution.
When dispensing relevant information doesn’t suffice, digital workers and customer service agents must be empowered to make offers and execute transactions. Using detailed business rules as guardrails, AI-powered virtual agents can resolve mid-tier customer service inquiries, freeing human workers for the most complex cases.
A combination of AI-powered automation and human staff can support at scale:
Promotional code and loyalty rewards redemption.
Machine intelligence can help shoppers apply promo codes, coupons, and loyalty rewards to the right merchandise categories, answer questions about in-store redemption policies, and help loyalty club members make the most of their rewards offers. AI-powered digital workers can even offer new promo codes for customers whose basket size is above a threshold and who’ve tried claiming an expired discount.
Make-goods and exchanges.
Intelligent agents can send customers new sizes, initiate a new shipment for items that were broken in transit, and even offer discounts on future purchases or free shipping to resolve complaints.
Returns for refund or credit.
The COVID-era surge in online commerce has also served to boost returns, which account for as much as 30% of online sales. The problem has become so extreme that in some instances, mass merchants are crediting customers and letting them keep the rejected items rather than deal with the headache of reverse logistics.
Discounts on future purchases can persuade shoppers to skip returning merchandise as well, a PYMNTS.com study found.
Retailers can establish thresholds below which customer service agents can allow shoppers to keep items and set discounting rules for closing out refund requests.
By using Linc’s automated customer care platform, online health supplement provider Pure Formulas is able to serve shoppers across touchpoints, address product questions, and proactively issue replenishment reminders as well as make relevant recommendations based on past purchases.
Thanks to Pure Formulas’ fully-enabled digital workers, just 6% of inquiries now need human agents to resolve, helping the company streamline operations, drastically reducing customer support overhead.
By combining the power of AI with human insights, retailers can guide customers through increasing complexity, fostering strong customer relationships and winning lasting loyalty.
Schedule a Demo with one of our Customer Experience Automation Experts!
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