Stephen Mello IBM

Stephen Mello: Ecommerce Success Relies on Solving Specific Customer Needs

9 minute read
Siobhan Fagan avatar
Businesses competing under the shadow of Amazon can differentiate themselves by solving customer needs with speed and accuracy

Stephen Mello has had a front-row seat to the changes in the ecommerce industry over the past decade. Mello was an original member of IBM's commerce unit, working his way up to his current role as vice president, strategy and offering management, IBM Watson Commerce. During that period, he led the integrations of Unica, Coremetrics and Tealeaf. 

Mello has seen online commerce change from static websites to dynamic interactions, where information, community interactions and personalized experiences have become the norm. New tools give businesses deeper insights into customer wants and needs and the ability to take action on those insights. Content plays an ever-increasing role in delivering these experiences, in many cases effectively replacing the face-to-face interactions of brick-and-mortar stores according to Mello. 

Mello has over 25 years of experience in marketing and product management, having held positions at Saatchi & Saatchi, Partners & Shevack Advertising, and Lowe and Partners Worldwide before joining IBM in 1998. 

His colleague, Brian Chaput, will present a session titled "Imagine the Possibilities With AI-Infused Digital Experiences" on Nov. 15 at CMSWire's DX Summit, which is taking place Nov. 13 to 15 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. We spoke with Mello in advance of the conference to get his thoughts on the ecommerce space and what it takes to compete in the shadow of Amazon.

Building Immersive Ecommerce Experiences

CMSWire: You started working in online commerce over 13 years ago — how has ecommerce changed in that time?

Mello: It's changed so much. In this relatively short amount of time we've seen sites transform themselves from what were primarily just basic online catalogs and carts to information-rich, immersive experiences that work to retain customers longer during each visit and to increase the likelihood of their return. 

Now, when I go to many sites, I am not only able to buy the product or products I'm looking for, but I can learn much more about them through a diverse set of content, get input from a broad community of others who have bought the same products, understand better the background or design history of the products and, depending on the type of product, learn more about how I can use it with others who share similar interests. It's all so much more interesting and rewarding than it was a decade ago.

CMSWire: In what ways do you see modern technology helping online brands deliver some of the personalized experiences that face-to-face retail interactions can provide?

Mello: This is definitely an area that needs to be addressed. While we increasingly see shoppers going online, the one missing element is the personalization that can be provided by face-to-face interactions and it is one of the key drivers of so many costly returns of online purchases. 

Cognitive technologies can be a real benefit in this area. Being able to provide guided selling capabilities that can truly understand your needs as a shopper at a very specific level, and through a series of flexible questions that guide you to the perfect solution will be invaluable. When you combine this with the ability to use cognitive technologies to also provide personalized offers on the final product recommendation or related products based on what the system knows about you and others like you that will increase your likelihood to buy, you will have a real solution to this critical issue. 

You also have an opportunity to provide better experiences online than face to face. Technology exists that allows us to understand more about our customers through all the ways they engage with us: in the store, through our mobile app, through social media, through their web interactions, through past orders, through search history — and the list goes on. If you are able to aggregate and analyze all of this data, and use cognitive tools to truly understand who your customer is as an individual, you can really wow them and gain a customer for life in a way we never thought was possible before.

CMSWire: How do you see the realms of ecommerce and content delivery working together and complementing each other in the future?

Mello: These are two areas that really can't be thought of as separate areas at all: they have to act as a single solution to deliver truly immersive web experiences. I believe that ecommerce sites will only be successful in a highly competitive environment and in the face of Amazon if they can provide rich experiences that solve a customer's needs quickly and deeply and do so in a personalized manner. This will require a diverse set of content that is increasingly video-based and that will be sourced from within a company and potentially from shoppers and users themselves. 

You will also need the ability to quickly and effectively take action on this content within a site, so seamless integration with ecommerce software, making it easy on the user, will be critical. And you will need content systems that are flexible, reflecting today's user needs. We see headless content management as a growing approach, so we need to ensure that content tools can not only provide the full set of historical capabilities, including the ability to build full sites, but also be used in a more simplistic or componentized manner. 

These various pieces all need to work together in a seamless manner, and they need to be accessible not only to IT, but to business users as well.

CMSWire: What tactics do you see brick-and-mortar stores successfully utilizing to bridge the online and offline experiences?

Mello: I believe that stores are in need of a major transformation, because they really have not changed in my lifetime, despite the advent of online commerce and the negative impact that has had on store traffic. Creating a connection between the physical store and online will be key to this transformation. 

Learning Opportunities

Specifically, I see stores providing store associates with the ability to forge deeper relationships with customers. This will happen in a variety of ways: giving associates access to what a shopper has done online, including purchase history, the last five items viewed and wish list items. That gives them the ability to leverage the power of personalization tools that reflect a knowledge of your full history with a brand (online and offline) and, as a result, provide highly relevant offers to a given customer based on their order history and loyalty status, and allowing the associate to be an online assistant if a shopper has a question following a store visit. 

I also believe brands will need to move toward a single cart that crosses the physical and online worlds so that a customer can leave an item in a cart, no matter where they saw it originally, and easily come back later to purchase it, regardless of the channel. This could provide a tremendous lift to lost sales due to people not returning to stores after initially seeing an item they liked but were not yet ready to purchase. 

CMSWire: Where do you see cognitive technologies supporting and improving customer experiences, and where do you think human interaction is still needed?

Mello: To start with, I don't see cognitive technologies replacing humans or human interaction as many people fear. At our core, I still believe all humans want and need human interaction and input at certain points and at a certain level. I believe artificial intelligence (AI) tools, and cognitive solutions will help improve customer experiences by culling through an ever-increasing amount of data and products to help shoppers get to exactly what will satisfy their needs, and they will help do so in a timely manner, which in today's world is shorter and shorter. 

Humans will still be needed to help guide and reinforce a shopper's purchase decisions. We all feel better when we know we are not alone on a decision — whether that comes from someone representing a brand, a friend or someone I don't know, but who had a similar need as mine. This interaction may change from 100 percent traditional face to face to a mix of face to face, video and text, but it will still be needed and delivered.

CMSWire: What excites you the most about the potential of AI? What applications do you think it will be involved in in 10 years time?

Mello: I'm excited about how it will be able to help our clients provide more engaging experiences for their customers. I see AI as either an extra set of hands or extra brain power that supplements what our clients are able to do on their own today. There is simply too much data and too many expectations from customers for personalization and to be engaged with by a brand that understands all of their interactions with that brand, even if they happened only seconds ago. 

Cognitive technologieswill help our clients make decisions and craft experiences that leverage all that data and deliver on these expectations — something a human simply can't do on their own. Whether it's through cognitive tagging of product content and assets, detecting anomalies or delivering just the right offer to any given customer, cognitive will be key in driving engaging experiences.

I don't think there will be an application in the world that doesn't employ AI or cognitive technologies in some manner in the next 10 years — at least not successful apps. Customer expectations continue to increase, and for brands to deliver they will have to utilize assistance from cognitive, and this spans all areas: both internal apps and customer-facing apps.

CMSWire: What’s your favorite airport and why?

Mello: Heathrow — I've always loved London, so it's great to just land and know I'm only a few minutes from such a vibrant and diverse city. But beyond that, it has a tremendous mix of people and it acts as a tremendous gateway to the rest of Europe and beyond. I never traveled outside the U.S. as a kid, so when I land in London, even after all of these years, I feel like I'm truly about to embark on an adventure.

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