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GUEST COMMENT Automation and the retail agent of the future

There’s no doubt we are currently going through a period of significant disruption in retail, with brands jockeying to provide customer experiences (CX) that reflect the modern consumer’s digitally connected lifestyle.

For some time, the pace of technological change has been challenging retailers to deliver seamless customer services across an ever-expanding scope of contact channels. This pressure is only going to escalate, especially in a competitive, increasingly e-commerce driven retail environment, where CX is as much of a deciding factor for some consumers as traditional differentiators such as price and quality of proposition.

To help, retail brands are turning to automation, which can complement agent-driven CX activity, improve the service customers receive and generate significant efficiencies and cost savings. But, it must be remembered that the applications of the technology are still limited.

Some services are currently too complex or too emotive for an automated system to reliably handle, and certain customers still prefer to interact with a human. Retailers must identify where automated solutions and agents can work together to drive value and enhance the customer service experience and critically, ensure they are fully integrated.

Seamless interactions

If a retailer is going to use automation to deliver CX, the handover between automated systems and agents need to be frictionless. If not, the customer journey becomes disjointed, which could ultimately have a negative impact on a brand’s loyalty.

For instance, by automating webchat using chatbot technology, retailers can deliver fixed answers to simple, high volume enquiries, improving the quality of their customer service and freeing up agents to handle more complex tasks. But, the responses chatbots can deliver are inherently restricted even with the use of AI. The technology currently uses a predetermined set of rules to predict human behaviour. Chatbots cannot comprehend nuance, or deliver a considered response. They cannot think… yet!

So, if a customer doesn’t get a satisfactory answer to their question immediately using a chatbot, they will expect their enquiry to be handed to an agent to resolve. When this happens, they should not have to repeat themselves. Their movement from one stage of the customer journey to the next must be seamless, or they will become frustrated by their experience and their loyalty to the brand compromised.

To achieve this, a retailer’s digital infrastructure must be as linked-up as possible, allowing data to be easily transferred between customers, automated systems and staff. This requires investment, so before making a firm commitment, retailers should also make a more holistic evaluation of their customer journey.

Conducting an ongoing service analysis is crucial, providing insight on which automated tasks have underdelivered, and whether switching tasks over to human agents can deliver improvements. The provision of exceptional customer service must be prioritised over any potential cost savings or efficiency gains. If an automated system, such as a consumer-facing chatbot, isn’t meeting customer demands, or supporting agents effectively, it is better to put the process back into the hands of an agent.

Retailers collect rafts of data through their digital channels on every interaction in a customer service journey to see how effective and efficient it is, but they should also be speaking to agents and customers to get their feedback. The best performing brands will be those that develop a clear understanding of the touch points in a customer journey where consumers encounter the most frustrations, and where agents face hurdles engaging with automated processes. Without understanding how the customer and agent feels, data alone is useless.

Staying human

The US research giant Gartner recently predicted consumers would manage 85% of their relationships with brands without any human interaction, but in practice, this will vary according to the industry and the type of customer. Businesses that serve demographics that aren’t as familiar with the latest technology won’t automate as many interactions as, for example, fast fashion retailers with a young, digitally native customer base that favour text-based communication. But, whatever level of automation a brand chooses to implement, it will always be essential to retain agents to respond to more complex issues.

I see a future where ‘enhanced agents’ have automation at their fingertips, and can deploy that technology as and when they need it to manage certain functions. This could see customers bounced between human and automated responses several times during their journey, without ever being aware of it.

For those retailers exploring how automation can take their CX offering to the next level, the key is to identify where automated solutions can work in tandem with their existing agent-driven activity. Those that do this have the opportunity to steal a march on their rivals and will find themselves with a substantial competitive advantage going forward.

Author: Phil Crossley, sales director of Parseq’s Contact Centre

Image credit: Fotolia 

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