Paul Skeldon, mobile editor, InternetRetailing, considers the latest big leap forward in ecommerce’s ongoing development.
We are in the midst of a technological revolution in ecommerce. The next big leap forward will be artificial intelligence (AI). AI isn’t really a thing per se, but is more the next evolutionary step in how we use computers and data, and how we use these to deliver the ever-more personalised and instant interaction that customers crave. As retail has increasingly become a mobile process, consumers think that brands and retailers should be communicating things that are personal and personally relevant to them, at the moment consumers want them. This produces a huge challenge for retailers: they can personalise experiences, but how do you do it at scale?
This is where AI technologies come in. Machines can now take in and analyse vast amounts of data, find patterns and trends and instantly decide what to do with them. Today, machines can help us to manage – on a personal level – all consumers.
The first place that AI is making its mark is in customer service, where chatbots – automated text-chatting machines – are taking much of the donkey work out of handling interactions with consumers. Customers become frustrated and feel disconnected when they get placed in a telephone queue or loop when trying to reach the customer service desk. This problem no longer exists with a chatbot. The virtual contact can be reached around the clock, from anywhere without the customer having to wait to call in office hours.
In addition to this, with more customers increasingly using mobile devices to inform, communicate or buy, they are very familiar with using a chat format. Chatbots can also be integrated into apps such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Chatbots can also fill that gap between needing to talk to a person and the question being handled by machine. Taco Bell in the USA has employed chatbots to handle frequently asked questions (FAQs). Such systems can also be put in place at a stage before the customer service desk, either to weed out and handle these routine questions without any human intervention, or to help direct questions that do need human input to the right person.
Chatbots are just the start of what will be an ongoing process. Automating call handling and even auto-texting replies are ideal for handling routine enquiries, but integrating AI across the business is where this next stage of technological evolution is heading.
Imagine being able to use machine learning that can take in and analyse all the data the business has across your whole company – every detail and snippet about every consumer. This is the promise of the next generation of AI for retailers. With consumers throwing off vast amounts of data as they go about their daily lives, brands and retailers face a dilemma: they need to use such data to personalise how they interact with consumers, but without the power of AI they can’t do anything with it. Increasingly, retailers are turning to AI systems to help collate some of the vast data lake and using it to personalise some aspects of customer interaction, typically marcomms. According to research by Forrester, AI offers the potential to create value for businesses that range from driving revenue growth to better serving customers and meeting their expectations. In fact, firms are also investing in AI marketing technologies to remain competitive and improve the strength of the brand. What this is translating into across businesses is developing real-time interactions with consumers across multiple channels. Some 72% of retailers questioned by Forrester in the US plan to use AI to start to offer such interaction between consumer and brand in the coming 12 months.
The next step in this evolution will be to bring together AI, marketing and chatbots to develop customer service and marcomms that can talk one-to-one with customers based on real-time analysis of the data available, but through automated channels – to personalise at scale. Developments in speech recognition, while not quite there yet, will eventually deliver the ability for people to talk to machines and for machines to answer back. We are already seeing the beginnings of this with devices such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home . Building data-driven, voice-recognising robots that can answer questions, deliver advice and even perhaps upsell to consumers is the next stage of the evolution of ecommerce. Conversational commerce may well be talked about, but once AI is embedded as standard across IT systems – which it will be in five year’s time – the way brands and consumers interact with each other will be very different indeed.