By Wayne White
Chief Technology Officer

Originally published by Total Retail, February 15, 2021

Many national retailers began announcing their 2020 holiday season plans and shopping promotions much earlier than in years past. The holiday shopping season was particularly different considering the COVID-19-induced drastic shift from a traditional brick-and-mortar shopping experience to an even more robust online environment. While stores ponder their physical store operations, retailers understand that 2021 planning also needs to account for changes in shoppers’ behavior and expectations due to the pandemic.

The last 11 months have presented retailers with several operational challenges and opportunities. While many struggled with the abrupt shift, others quickly pivoted to expanding their existing online and delivery strategies. According to a survey conducted by Ipsos, more than a third of U.S. consumers who normally shop in-store for Black Friday said they would not last year. Nearly half of U.S. shoppers said the pandemic would affect how they shopped for the holidays last year. This break from tradition makes it more difficult for retailers to plan as they normally would. While customers are embracing online retail, they will still want a comprehensive and stress-free experience. Because of this, many retailers have shifted their focus to improving the e-commerce shopping experience to mimic an in-store shopping experience using customer service.

Today’s customers expect brands to go above and beyond to meet their needs and provide them with excellent customer service. When a question needs to be answered, customers want troubleshooting assistance at their fingertips. To meet this need, retailers are leveraging highly sophisticated customer service technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), self-service and new, advanced chatbots to provide a resolution-centric, stress-free solution.

During this time, tools that allow self-service customer response techniques are more important than ever. Expanding online shopping options can help to attract consumer dollars at a time when many shoppers are as unsure of what to expect as retailers are. Retail organizations need solutions that can handle a steep spike in customer inquiries without letting first-contact resolution metrics slip. A positive digital experience between a customer and a retailer will attract repeat shoppers for many years to come.

Retailers today need more digitally immersive experiences to inspire customer confidence and trust in the absence of in-store atmosphere and mood. Evolving pandemic-shaped shopping behaviors means more retailers need to follow the leads of those engaging consumers through new channels like mobile websites or apps, and engagement through user-friendly interfacing websites and options such as customer service chat and self-support.

Self-service is a rapidly growing customer care trend among consumers that can make a significant impact on workforce load for retailers. Self-discovery tools such as interactive tutorials, adaptive FAQs, interactive guides, and videos that contain the simple, do-it-yourself answers that customers are looking for can engage shoppers while alleviating contact center volumes, reserving agents for more pressing customer service needs. These tools allow the customer to solve most of their needs themselves, putting the power back into the customer’s hands. Instead of depending on an agent for help, a customer can tap into multimedia support materials for productive learning that mimics the experience of chatting with a live agent. Self-service tools such as interactive tutorials and videos can also aid customers in their customer care journey by visually showing them how to resolve a problem.

The easiest way to alleviate contact center agents while achieving strong customer satisfaction that leads to further sales is through intelligent and interactive chatbots. These tools can help shoppers by providing human-like customer service as well as answers to questions that other customers have previously asked and showing users step-by-step how they can reach a common goal. This can significantly cut down on call volumes, freeing contact center resources to focus on customers who need highly technical assistance. This strategy will further improve the customer experience while preventing retailers from becoming overwhelmed with an influx of customer service queries.

In this scenario, not only are customers relying on self-service and FAQ tutorials themselves, but retail contact center agents can also retrieve AI-curated content from the same source materials, creating a fast and personal experience for the customer vs. agents relying on scripts. And in some instances, customers are seamlessly redirected from a chatbot to a live agent on more technical questions where a higher skillset level of expertise is required to field questions.

In a time when the pandemic has pushed retailers into limited hours of operation and far fewer customer service centers are opened, AI-driven chatbot technology and self-discoverable information can fill in the gaps and augment the work of contact center agents to improve retail operations.

Wayne White is the chief information officer at ResultsCX, an AI-empowered customer experience platform.