Digital Assistants: Retail's Death Or Savior?

Jack Dyson

Communicating with a brand via a digital or voice assistant might currently be the preserve of Amazon and Google, but conversational commerce has the potential to reshape the customer experience for every brand in the world.

Now is when you make sure you’re not left behind.

“This will be more disruptive than the smartphone was. And people are not aware of it, in the same way that ten years ago they were not aware of the potential impact of the smartphone.” Kees Jacobs, who works as digital proposition lead for consumer products and retail for Capgemini, is talking about conversational commerce, and he is one of those who does know about it. He reckons conversational commerce is creating a fundamental change in the way consumers experience brands and retail.

Customer experience is driving dramatic change for retailers

The crux of this change is caused by customer behavior and expectations, says Kees. “You cannot say the customer behavior is changing. It has changed. And the rules that retailers used to differentiate themselves have gone. It’s no longer just about range, access, and price. It’s the same for brands – it’s no longer about pricing, promotions, or how much they spend on trade promotions. The new rules are about addressing new behaviors, and using data in a different way – and doing it at scale. We’ve done a study with the board of the Consumer Goods Forum, sponsored by the CEOs of the 50 largest consumer goods and retail companies in the world – Walmart, Tesco, Unilever – and they are worried. They don’t want to end up like the Roman Empire – it saw itself as invincible and eternal, but the Goths and the Vandals saw the weaknesses.”

One of those expectations lies in the customer experience. The customer wants to be in control and expects the retailer to make every part of the journey as easy as possible. Consumers want to feel as their brand journey has been designed for their benefit, not that of the retailer. For instance, Capgemini research indicates that 75% of consumers want to check stock levels online before going to a shop, and 73% want same-day delivery.

Convenience and speed are expected as part of the increasing desire for an experience without barriers. “This is a weak spot in the industry that retailers and brands need to address,” says Kees. “They need to make consumers’ lives as easy as possible – hassle-free shopping, what they want at that particular moment without complications. They don’t want to shop around for best value – they want to trust a brand to give them the best value.”

Alexa, order conversational commerce now

The entrance of conversational commerce will upend the retail experience for consumers and businesses. “It’s the biggest change on the horizon. It’s not technical or tactical – it’s about new ways of interacting with consumers. Consumers don’t know about it, and it will completely change how we live. And we believe that this is a huge opportunity for brands.” That’s because, according to Capgemini’s chief experience officer Mark Taylor, conversational commerce “puts the humanity back into shopping.”

This is not about a voice-activated speaker in your kitchen. It’s about dialogue and empathy.

That might sound like an oxymoron. How does technology-based on AI and machine learning inject humanity into the customer experience? Kees draws a parallel between Alexa and himself as an eight-year-old: “I was a conversational commerce device. My grandmother would say to me, go to the store and get my favorite cheese. I knew what cheese she wanted. I was embedded in her life. She didn’t need to say anything more than that. Speech is much more natural than swiping or using a keyboard.”

And it’s not speech being used simply to turn things on and off. “This is not about having a voice-activated speaker in your kitchen or giving commands. It’s about a dialogue. It’s about empathy, recognizing tone of voice, being relevant. This is where conversational commerce really comes into play.” Its potential to become embedded in so many aspects of our lives will make it ubiquitous. You’ll be talking to your car, your fridge, your shopping trolley, probably through a single device.

The expansion of the Amazon Echo range is an indicator of what’s to come. There are now seven Echo devices, covering different price points, and eventually they will be everywhere, and wherever you are you’ll be able to have a conversation with Amazon. What this isn’t is here, now. “We’re at the first stage of the development of conversational commerce,” says Kees. “It’s robotic dialogue – there are some examples of basic personal dialogue, but none of it is playful, or genuinely personal.”

Infographic: The four stages of conversational commerce

Conversational_commerce.jpg

Conversational commerce offers brands and retailers a chance to lead on CX

There is still a long way to go until we get to the truly personal personal assistant. And in the time between here and there, the risk is that conversational commerce remains dominated by the device brands – the likes of Amazon and Google. That would mean competitive retailers may have to use their technology.

So one of the things Kees and a team from MIT and Intel are working on is a set of commands that could put the consumer directly in touch with a brand. You’d say “hello, Coca-Cola,” rather than “hello, Alexa,” allowing the brand to escape the influence of whoever makes the device. “It’s important for companies to start shaping the impact of this technology,” says Kees. “Then they’re not dependent on a technology provider. That way they can master and then control the experience.” And that way lies the ultimate purpose of conversational commerce – satisfied customers.

Twenty years ago, Steve Jobs said, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around… What incredible benefits can we give to the customer?” This is a rare chance for brands and retailers to make those incredible benefits a reality.

Learn more about how to offer personalized customer experiences here

This article originally appeared on The Future of Customer Engagement and Commerce.


Jack Dyson

About Jack Dyson

Jack Dyson is head of Digital Content Strategy for SAP Hybris.