Mastering the Hybrid Retail Experience

Seb Reeve is Director of International Go-To-Market, Intelligent Engagement at Nuance Communications.

With the holiday season underway consumers are deciding how they are going to shop. Some of them may plan to shop online and avoid physical storefronts entirely, while others are looking forward to the hustle and bustle of the in-store experience.

Most people, however, are likely to take a hybrid approach. In fact, a survey conducted by OnePoll found that most consumers (58%) believe that, even after the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ll have more digital interactions than they did previously. As a result, many retailers will have to cater to both online and offline shoppers this holiday season.

In other words, they have to provide a compelling and consistent hybrid consumer experience that accommodates all customers, no matter how they choose to engage.

Understanding the Experience

So, what exactly does a hybrid consumer experience entail?

Hybrid Retail ExperienceThe best hybrid experiences today use a combination of digital customer engagement technologies to create a seamless shopping experience between the physical and digital storefronts. So, regardless of whether people prefer showrooming (research in-store, buy online), webrooming (research online, buy in-store), or some other form of shopping, they know they’ll always have helpful and positive interactions.

When designed well, hybrid experiences should make life easier for all parties involved. High-quality hybrid experiences give shoppers the opportunity to discover, evaluate, and purchase what they want on their own terms. And they empower retailers to keep customers satisfied at a time when people are less likely to be brand-loyal.

Unsurprisingly, where retailers tend to fall short is on the eCommerce side of the hybrid experience. Making shoppers feel special is harder without that face-to-face interaction.

The key lies in eliminating friction wherever possible, so that the online shopping experience feels as comfortable as the on-site experience.

When in their best form, hybrid experiences ensure that every touchpoint along the customer journey brings delight to consumers.

To do this well, brands need to implement conversational artificial intelligence (AI) solutions, leverage customer data, and accelerate digital transformation across the broader enterprise.

Only then can contact center managers—the people who are most affected by this transition—achieve their most ambitious goals going forward.

Using Conversational AI

Creating the ideal hybrid experience can seem daunting, especially for those with little exposure to digital customer engagement technology.

On top of that, businesses everywhere are strapped for resources and talent. The pandemic created disruption on many fronts, forcing brands to reconsider how they keep up with demand and consumer expectations.

In light of this reality, one of the best ways to enhance the online shopping experience is to take advantage of conversational AI.

This particular type of AI has improved significantly in recent years, enabling companies to reallocate mindless, repetitive tasks away from human employees.

Conversational AI is also the cornerstone of effective self-service capabilities that consumers now expect when they interact with brands.

Conversational AI in the form of chatbots and intelligent virtual assistants (VAs) can answer basic customer inquiries, such as when stores are open, and direct people to other helpful sources of information, like FAQ pages or people in specific departments.

These solutions can also look up order statuses, promote specific products, investigate stock availability, and more: all through simple chat applications that are available on any smart device. Furthermore, AI and intelligent VAs can handle multiple interactions at once, keeping wait times low and customer satisfaction high.

Shoppers don’t have to sit on hold or in long chat queues before they can feel comfortable making purchases. And when customers have the ability to find answers to their questions themselves, retail employees have more capacity for bigger challenges.

Put simply, conversational AI tools free human customer service representatives up to handle more complex interactions that aren’t suited for AI.

When it comes to implementing conversational AI solutions, the ultimate goal is to create a division of responsibility between humans and AI that makes sense for the business and facilitates a consistent omnichannel shopping experience.

Therefore, conversational AI should augment what humans are trying to do, rather than replace them outright, as well as fit into an organization’s larger sales ecosystem.

Fortunately, modern AI consumer engagement tools are equally powerful and easy to implement. Companies don’t have to invest huge amounts of capital to benefit from these solutions. They can plug conversational AI in where it makes sense, giving human employees more capacity to deliver exceptional customer experiences in-store and online.

Leveraging Data

It’s hard to provide a high-quality hybrid experience without knowing exactly what shoppers want at all times. But rather than make assumptions, companies today should gather as much information as they can and then use that data to optimize shopping experiences across various channels.

Fortunately, data is everywhere, and it’s only becoming easier to collect, both from day-to-day operations and external sources.

With all this data, companies can build comprehensive user profiles and detailed avatars that give them tremendous insight into what patrons need.

For example, businesses can identify pain points customers have that prevent them from making purchases in-store or online. They can also make informed decisions around how to proactively mitigate those issues.

Additionally, user data has the potential to uncover behavioral patterns or growth opportunities that would otherwise be impossible to glean. It gives businesses more context around how to deliver personalized experiences that go above and beyond what other enterprises offer. It also has the potential to generate value through predictive analytics.

Conversational AI solutions can play a valuable role in this area as well. For instance, sophisticated solutions with strong natural language processing capabilities can analyze digital interactions that agents have with consumers, pull out findings, and even make suggestions around what products to recommend or next steps to take.

But to be clear, having an abundance of rich data and conversational AI isn’t enough. Companies must be able to extend data to all staff members in a way that allows them to deliver tailored experiences to individual customers. Staff members should be able to share certain kinds of data with one another, even across department lines.

For example, a retail staff member should be able to add a note in a shopper profile that a contact center agent could then pull up in a separate conversation with the same customer.

When this capability exists, in-store and remote customer service agents can hand off customers as they transition from a physical location to an online store or vice versa without any hiccups. In doing so, they make customers feel heard and appreciated, which goes a long way towards keeping them engaged.

Accelerating Digital Transformation

Beyond implementing conversational AI and using data to its fullest potential, companies must pursue digital transformation more broadly to be successful over the long term. Those that don’t will have trouble keeping up as the world continues to move faster on predominately digital channels.

In fact, enterprises worldwide accelerated digital transformation plans by several years to navigate the variability and uncertainty of COVID-19. Consequently, the playing field has changed drastically over the past 18+ months, and leaders that made moves early on are now reaping the benefits.

We’ve seen a lot of change around consumer expectations in terms of digital interactions and services.

People are much more comfortable making purchases online and are far less likely to stick with mainstream brands.

They have more information at their fingertips than ever before, allowing them to compare offerings, negotiate better pricing, and make requests of retailers that would previously have fallen on deaf ears. It’s consumers who make the rules now, and enterprises have to abide.

In response to this shift, retailers must make strategic investments, loosen up in certain areas, and upgrade where they were once lacking. Many have already done this: some companies are now offering free shipping, risk-free returns, price matching, and other benefits to entice people to stick with them as they explore their options.

The good news is that there is still time for those retailers that have yet to adapt, particularly on the technology side.

Under such competitive dynamics, they must invest in technology platforms and tools that enable them to apply industry-specific knowledge in combination with higher-level best practices for optimizing hybrid experiences. It’s not enough anymore to design the best-looking physical store or offer the lowest pricing online.

Retailers have to optimize the end-to-end shopping experience and create a seamless journey through which buyers feel heard every step of the way.

With conversational AI, data analytics, and sweeping digitization, it’s possible to catch up this fall, right in time for the holidays.

Seb Reeve is Director of International Go-To-Market, Intelligent Engagement at Nuance Communications.

– Republished with permission from Contact Center Pipeline,

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