Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Will digitally-based customer assistance help solve store customer service woes?

That's exactly the question that the latest BrainTrust Query over at Retail Wire is trying to answer, and as usual, the participants in the discussion have some great insights to share. Using examples like Experticity's kiosk-based remote assistance platform, or the 3D avatars employed by some other self-service technology companies, Laura Davis-Taylor posits that there's a need to engage the customer at a point when she is making an active investment in learning about a product/service, which is an important part of the sales process to be sure.

The upside of such programs is that by relying on artificial intelligence and a centralized customer support staff, retailers can lower costs while improving the service experience by being able to instantly access product information, loyalty programs, etc. and tie those into the support process. Of course, the downside is that the human customer is now interacting with a kiosk, and whether there's a human or a computer on the other end of the Internet connection, it's not quite the same as speaking to somebody in-store.

While there are certainly valid arguments to be made on both sides, it seems like this technology, or something reasonably similar, will become a de-facto addition to the retail environment given the dramatic upswing of in-store self-service kiosks (for all sorts of uses), and the advent of more capable mobile devices. A few years from now, it seems like it would be more likely a customer would want to interact with a human being or really smart AI on the other end of their smartphone (a device already optimized for human interaction) rather than a self-contained kiosk. On the other hand, of course, kiosks will always be able to offer more functionality, larger screen real estate, peripherals like printers, and so on, so there's a place for them as well.

Technology aside, though, the success or failure of these services lies with their ability to connect with customers and offer them genuine value. My favorite quote from this Brain Trust survey comes from Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc., who suggests that, ". If the interaction doesn't really feel like talking with a "live" person it should not be presented that way. In many instances, consumers are seeking information and that source doesn't need to be in the form of a personal interaction." Both information and presentation of the information are important inside of a store, and even the most well thought-out product brochures and marketing info won't make a difference if they aren't presented in such a way that the customer will be receptive to them.

This could be the biggest challenge for companies like Experticity, whose entire business involves delivering a real-world experience inside of a real-world environment, but via an artificial, digital medium.

Tags: Experticity, self-service, in-store marketing, customer support

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