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Contextualizing Communication: Chat, Email, Voice Interactions

Retailers of all types are seeking new ways of communicating more directly with their customers in digital modes beyond email, including chatbots, marketing automation and email response management.  While these tools provide more scalable mechanisms to engage in near real-time than keeping hundreds of live reps on staff, they will never fully replace the need for live agent support. Creating the customer-employee contact journey, and ensuring that employees are armed with the right information and capacity to support, is critical to these new technologies’ success.

While they need to be able to interact across every channel, retailers’ real focus should be on understanding key interactions and use cases and how to best enable them. Interacting via chat or sending an email post-purchase with information on installation are two options, but what makes the retail journey most powerful is enabling communications to work together.

Linking Transactions to ContactTimeliness, scale, and costs are all driving this multichannel interactive trend. As e-commerce continues to grow, success now requires support of interactions outside of the store. Retailers need to think about the before, during and after of purchases and tailor their communications and interactions accordingly. Combining context and content creates a very powerful understanding of behavior and the ability to shape the interaction.

At a more tactical level, retailers that interact with “logged in” customers have a better chance of identifying them, and can then link together transactions and interactions to help them most effectively. We expect to see more and more retailers pushing existing customers to log in before contacting them—either via an app or online — so that they can have the best possible context to support them. Web and chat forms that capture the reason for a contact help route the interaction to the right agent based on skills and capacity.

Factoring in Consumer Attitudes  
Thinking of all communication as a two-way street, retailers strategically need to know what may be coming at them from the other side. I’ve noticed three main stages of acceptance in consumer expectations of personalization and communication in these new interactive modes:

1. Expected to execute. Consumers “expect” retailers to use the information they’ve already provided to support their needs.  If they’ve already ordered products, they expect the retailer to know it — they shouldn’t have to tell the retailer.

2. Supposed to solve. When issues arise, the retailer should proactively find ways to help the consumer.  If a shipment is delayed or a product is out of stock, the retailer should proactively let the consumer know and help her “solve” it before she knows she has a problem.

3. Right to recommend.  Once they build consumer trust in these other areas, retailers then earn the “right to recommend” new products/services that relate to customers’ past interactions — and they are allowed to be imperfect. Think of this stage as a best friend who may not always be right, but knows enough about you to recommend things that make sense.

Retailers definitely need to be mindful of the balance between helpful and annoying interactions — they should never push information on customers, but should continue to seek feedback from their customers, both digitally and in stores, to understand their satisfaction with the brand overall, and with communications in particular.

Email, Voice or Social Media? 
Each interactive communication mode—whether email, social media, voice or other — has its strengths. Email is still a valid tool, as long as retailers make the messaging relevant and timely. Retail service providers such as Narvar are rethinking the post-purchase experience, and in particular the order status email.

To achieve a compelling interface, it’s critical to not just look at traditional metrics such as open rate and click-through rate, but to really link the interaction back to purchase behavior and tie it to ultimate outcomes. Engagement and loyalty are not the same thing; understanding the differences is extremely important.
Some retailers create in-app or on-site content feeds that incorporate social media and user-generated content. I love retailers’ approach of offering compelling stories and thus creating emotional connections with customers, and allowing them to share with each other.

The key is to understand what role social media plays within their overall contact strategy — for example, while Instagram is great for storytelling and creating an emotional connection with customers, it’s not the best channel for resolving customer issues. Retailers that are able to get customers to help other customers and interact in a one-to-many manner will definitely get scale effects and advantages, including loyalty.

Voice-enabled commerce is not a one-size-fits all approach, and retailers will need to reach specific levels of understanding — for example, frequency and types of customer interactions — to determine what will work best for their customers and for them.

Technology giants Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft are all actively racing to be the platform of choice for voice. Additionally, artificial intelligence will continue to allow marketing and service communications to seem, and actually be, more tailored than ever before.

Retailers must continue to evolve how they communicate with their customers. Email is still a critical channel, but messaging, chat and voice-enabled interactions will all continue to rise. It’s imperative to have the tools and technology to capture and link interactions across channels — capabilities that are definitely improving.

It’s now easier than ever before to know if a customer has made contact via social, email, voice, or another channel. And knowing this, retailers can refine and contextualize their communications with customers, moving toward a “just right” level of understanding and building consumer trust.

Adam Pressman is a partner in the digital transformation and retail practices of A.T. Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm. He can be reached at [email protected].

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