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PHOTO: Willrad von Doomenstein

Product and price. Once upon a time they were all you needed to worry about because that was how you attracted customers and beat the competition. Not any more. With just a few keystrokes, a potential customer can compare prices from distributors around the world and read all about the product’s features, benefits, problems, product ratings and more. Shopping has moved online, and if you want to compete, it’s all about the customer experience.

While it’s true that physical stores still account for most retail sales, it’s fair to say we are in the middle of an economic shift, where the rules of customer experience are being completely rewritten. The Office for National Statistics says online sales in the UK, as a proportion of all retailing, reached 18.9% by March 2019. Never before has the customer been more in focus, more accessible and had more influence over the success of a commercial organization. For a company to stay competitive, the focus must be on the customer experience.

The Evolution of the Customer Experience

If you are marketing online, the browser is your store’s front window, sales associate and cashier. You need to ask yourself: Is our website easy enough to navigate or are there too many steps between the search and the checkout? Does anything function too slowly? Problems with any one of these — or countless others — can affect sales, but the task of responding appropriately to each of these factors can be overwhelming.

But the potential for problems doesn’t end with the browser experience; in fact, it’s just getting started. Forward-thinking businesses understand that competing in today’s crowded market requires a seamless blend of shopping options — whether it's online, physical store, mobile, voice assistant or a customer service call.

The first challenge comes in figuring out how to connect all those touchpoints, giving customers a seamless experience with no reason to look elsewhere. But to do that, data from multiple shopping options and the delivery of timely content needs to be regularly analyzed and checked. This isn’t easy to do, even if you have the internal resources available.

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Better Technology Can Provide Better Customer Experiences

Consider the value of customer data. When a business is able to collect and analyze relevant customer data, the company can improve its ability to deliver a seamless experience. The right technology allows businesses to sift through massive amounts of customer data and provide real-time assistance at scale. Digital experience platforms can optimize a customer’s entire onsite journey, ensuring that each customer interaction is relevant and personalized. Whether customers interact with your business via its website, app or voice, their experience depends heavily on the data connections happening behind the scene. Failing to make use of these connections means customers can be asked the same questions over and over, offered irrelevant services or content and, ultimately, given a less than ideal user experience.

Knowing the importance of the digital landscape, companies are anxious to go digital. Gartner predicts that by 2021, 90% of global organizations will rely on system integrators (SIs), agencies and channel partners to design, build and implement their digital strategies.

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Letting AI Take the Lead

By using data in ways that provide actual convenience and by connecting customer information across all paths of their journey, businesses can offer a more informed and tailored approach to each user. And AI, powered by a set of algorithms and advanced merchandising capabilities that allow brands to optimize each visitor’s search, browse and landing page experiences, can do just that.

Let’s take a look at how this could work in the real world. A retailer, let's call it "Reggie's," has a goal to become the nation’s leading specialist in widget manufacturing and maintenance. Now, for Reggie’s to pull this off, would require a new approach when it came to its digital offerings.

Let’s assume Reggie’s already has a workable search function and that 20% of online sessions included searches, and this is driving 40% of the company’s online sales. You’d think any company would be happy with those numbers. But managing this by conventional methods would mean lots and lots of resources. This kind of operation takes an intensive amount of human labor to manage a company’s ever-changing product inventory, including all the manual rule writing necessary to ensure that each search will be optimized.

The problem isn’t in the operation, the problem is the resources — or lack thereof. After a certain point, it becomes impossible to keep up. This is where AI comes in. AI can make it possible to continuously improve and optimize search results with custom algorithms — without adding more and more resources. This way, Reggie’s would no longer have to manually write new rules, and it could eliminate the time-intensive tasks and the many hours of work that accompany them.

Now, let’s imagine going one step further. What if Reggie’s were to combine its new search function with data-driven insights to provide its customers with even more relevant results? This would not only make it possible to recommend the right search results, but it would also allow it to gather valuable information on its customers’ habits each time they visit the site.

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Improving customer experience has become an increasingly complex exercise. However, by using the right experience platform and AI tools, you too can gain more control over every aspect of the experience from search and merchandising through to CMS. Implementing the right AI solution provides the means of driving visitors to purchase faster and eliminating your operations most time-consuming tasks. And this, of course, gives you more time for the other all-important factor in retail: the human touch.