Can AI Cure Retailers’ Holiday Headaches?

Hire a communication automation manager and the answer might just be yes.

Written by Eli Israelov
Published on Nov. 16, 2022
Can AI Cure Retailers’ Holiday Headaches?
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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The holiday season means two things for retailers: More revenue and more challenges dealing with customers, especially when it comes to returns and exchanges. 

During the 2021 holiday season, from November to January, returns totaled more than 17 percent of sales. Holiday season returns cost the retail sector more than $100 billion. The process is a headache for customers, too. Even though a growing number of retailers are letting consumers keep unwanted items while still getting their money back, this doesn’t erase the need for shoppers to fill out forms, send emails or make phone calls in order to complete the process.

What’s A Communication Automation Manager?

A communication automation manager possesses expertise in AI, data and the importance of good communications. A communication automation manager can prioritize which customer-service processes should be automated, keeping in mind how they relate to the overall customer experience and the company’s bottom line.

Although the return rate is higher during the holiday season, returns along with effective customer service presents a costly challenge all year long for retailers. That’s why retailers are increasingly automating customer communication. AI-enabled automated communication for everything from curbside pickup times to product reviews can improve the customer experience and ultimately boost sales. But it must be done right. 

That is why every retailer needs a communication automation manager to oversee this process. In most places, this job doesn’t really exist, at least not yet. But this should not be a job for the future, as this is a job for today for someone who can bring together expertise in AI, data and the importance of good communications. The person in this position will make sure that solutions are not piecemeal and that humans and machines are working together effectively to drive business forward.

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Why Automate?

Automation can help get rid of pain points and bring in new business. Processes, though, should not be automated in a vacuum, or simply because doing so is trendy. A communication automation manager can prioritize which customer-facing tasks and communications should be automated, keeping in mind how they relate to the overall customer experience and the company’s bottom line. 

Using automation to simplify routine tasks, for instance scheduling pickups or leaving a product review, can go a long way toward increasing business and loyalty. To beyond a superficial level, retailers need multiple layers of automation and AI that are integrated with each other. 

For example, a chatbot that can look up a customer’s order and recite the expected shipping date is not enough. It needs to be able to automatically communicate with the shipping and warehouse departments to find out updated details to tell the customer. Automated communication should also not be limited to consumer-brand interactions, but should also include B2B communications with suppliers, manufacturers and other service providers. An executive who oversees automation can make sure that all departments and their data are connected to each other, creating the groundwork for integrated and smart automation that is truly transformative.

Automating communication is also not just about responding to customers’ queries, complaints and requests. When automating communications is viewed more holistically and includes company outreach, it will be even more effective. For example, automated but personal targeted messages about new products or sales, have the potential to bring in more customers and more revenue. Capturing new business this way is especially valuable in the current economy, where more shoppers say they are on tighter budgets and are comparing prices and offers.


How to Automate

When consumers communicate with brands, they don’t want to have to download new apps or navigate websites. They want to use the platform that is most convenient and natural for them; the same one they use to talk to friends and family. This means brands need to be able to accommodate customers who want to communicate on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, SMS and everything else. They need integrated and AI-driven automated communications across and compatible with all of these platforms, and not just written communications, but also audio and video messages.

A brand’s communication automation manager will help brands meet consumers on the platforms they are using. The best way to do this is to oversee the implementation of an internal digital platform that brings together all of the communication channels. Such a platform would integrate with each social media type or messaging app and allow the brand to oversee all automated communication in one place. An effective platform will be powered by AI that is constantly learning, giving it the ability to understand customer intent, send out powerful targeted messages and guide human agents in their jobs.

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What to Automate

Automation tools like chatbots should make life easier for both customer service agents as well as customers. This requires well-planned implementation, something that is often missing, causing many people to feel dissatisfied with chatbots. A recent survey found that one-third of consumers didn’t get the answers they needed from chatbots. This is also where the AI needs to be done well; any AI system must be able to support a fleet of chatbots that are constantly learning and are able to interact with each other as well as with customers. 

Chatbots should not replace humans, but rather work with them. This means they need to work well with people. For example, customers should not be able to feel the transition if a chatbot turns the conversation over to a human or vice-versa. 

To do this, one Israel-based insurance company has created avatars of its human customer service agents to serve as chatbots. That way, when the actual human agent takes over, the transition is smooth. Customers should also never need to request a human; a chatbot should be able to tell when a human is needed. 

Retail brands today have no choice but to use AI to automate more communication. At the same time, everyone knows that, automated or not, poor communication experiences can turn consumers away, and that’s something brands really cannot risk in this economic reality. Creating a position of communication automation manager will help effectively integrate more automated processes into customer service and will differentiate those companies who do it well from those who do not.

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