The retail industry is having to quickly respond to a diverse range of challenges, accelerated by evolving consumer behaviours and trends which have emerged in the wake of technological advancements such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and cloud-based software as a service (SaaS).
Amazon may have seen its stock rise to an $815 billion market cap with 70% returns for investors, however, House of Fraser (which has been trading since 1849 and maintains an excellent reputation for customer service), is closing a record number of bricks-and-mortar stores in response to declining demand for high street shopping.
Despite this spate of closures, some of the most successful online retailers, including Missguided and Made.com, are taking the opportunity to open physical stores/showrooms and expand their customer offering.
This trend of ‘clicks-to bricks’ seems to demonstrate that despite the unpredictable nature of the high street, with the correct business model and omnichannel strategy, retailers can achieve success offline.
According to the latest Global Retail Automation Market report by Research and Markets, the global retail sector is estimated to reach $18.76 billion by 2023. It is therefore vital for retailers to understand how new technologies can be used to solve the most common problems, especially when it comes to customer experience (CX).
The high street shop front is becoming less of a priority focus for retailers, as consumers are actively engaging with their chosen brands online using multiple devices including laptops and mobile phones.
Customers now expect to quickly and easily communicate through various platforms, applications and social media, but also anticipate switching between interactive voice response (IVR), automated chatbots or virtual assistants (VAs) with the option of connecting with a live human agent if their enquiry becomes too complex to resolve through automated technology.
AI, ML and automation have been accompanied by fears perpetuated through the media, but these innovations should not be viewed as threats as they can successfully improve the customer experience and manage workforce optimisation (WFO) without any detriment to human values.
Forward-thinking organisations can procure a combination of these technologies to optimise their business, ensuring profitability and saving staff from potential job losses.
Many vendors now offer sophisticated cloud-based services that will help to automatically make complex decisions pertaining to resource allocation, staff organisation and customer service personalisation that will be critical to improve operational efficiencies and reduce expenditure.
Effective customer experience is about giving all consumers the freedom to select how and when they interact with a brand by providing a variety of easy-to-use and intuitive self-service options wherever possible.
Against a volatile commercial landscape, every retail business must re-evaluate and update their customer experience to meet the needs of a digitally connected and mobile-focused generation.
The proliferation of cloud providers has not only made this easier but more affordable, by streamlining all contact points and customer data into a single powerful, unified platform. The nature of this ‘technology-as-a-service’ means it can be managed externally by a hosting provider who will do most of the essential maintenance, system updates and technical support.
This will be vital for companies hoping to reduce their reliance on in-house IT departments and on-site data centres and will result in reduced overhead costs and more efficient customer services.
Cloud also offers ‘Infrastructure as a Service’ capabilities for any enterprise, including a Contact Centre as a Service (CCaaS) subscription model.
This is a practical alternative to manually managing digital systems and processes in-house and offers a level of scalability and flexibility that will help ensure efficient service delivery, especially during busy sales periods such as Black Friday and Christmas.
Many retailers are leveraging the benefits of cloud services and gaining significant competitive advantage as a result of being early adopters of these technologies.
Once the service is running it can be used to optimise human resource allocation by reducing reliance on customer service agents to undertake mundane administrative tasks, freeing up their availability to focus on direct enquiries, resulting in a significant increase of productivity and efficiency.
In addition to improving logistical processes, digitalisation generates a wealth of valuable customer data which can be used in multiple ways to improve service standards and provide a more personalised experience for the customer.
AI and automation enable large volumes of inbound enquiries to be resolved instantly by cross-referencing previous engagement history and personal information to ensure any issue is dealt with accurately and efficiently, hopefully without the need to switch to a live agent.
Collected data can then be analysed to assess service delivery benchmarks and ultimately improve satisfaction levels in addition to monitoring shopping habits that can be leveraged to increase sales conversions in the future. By maintaining strong relationships with customers, retail businesses will increase brand loyalty, thereby reducing attrition rates and generating long term ROI.
AI and automation can help retailers improve their customer experience as well as a whole host of other processes, but the latest research report from Microsoft and Blue Yonder reveals they are failing to successfully integrate these technologies across their operations.
The survey found 96% of retailers are still reliant on manual processes, despite near-universal recognition of the benefits that greater automation could bring.
By failing to adapt to the changing demands of their customers and relying on manual processes, retailers run the risk of losing customers to more progressive and technologically advanced companies.
An effective omnichannel strategy should provide a seamless and cohesive shopping experience across both physical and digital environments.
To ensure it is successful, any attempt to enact a technological shift should be part of a long-term, company-wide plan that emphasises a customer-centric focus alongside relevant training and upskilling of staff to create a highly effective customer experience.
Stephen Ball is senior vice president of Europe and Africa at Aspect
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