Roundtable: Future solutions for current ecommerce problems

Retail Gazette and Certainly hosted a roundtable on online customer service challenges, and how conversational commerce and AI can solve them.

Attendees at the Retail Gazette and Certainly roundtable discussed how technology can overcome ecommerce challenges
Attendees at the Retail Gazette and Certainly roundtable discussed how technology can overcome ecommerce challenges

Finding the right people to do the job, legacy systems, rising customer expectations, and limited stock availability due to supply chain disruption represent the key challenges in the world of ecommerce today.

That is according to retailers who attended a Retail Gazette roundtable held at Sea Containers Hotel in London on 16 March.

Retailers at the event spoke of the different tactics adopted online to maintain their brand reputation and drive down the number of customer returns, while the fashion retailers present said that helping shoppers find the right size online remains a significant problem.

Google’s imminent depreciation of online cookies and Apple’s increased privacy measures also mean all retailers and brands are battling for more zero-party data now they must be less reliant on third-party data for marketing purposes.

The roundtable welcomed representatives from a wide range of retailers and brands including Sweaty Betty, WHSmith, Anya Hindmarch, Britvic, EverythingFivePounds.com, Seraphine and Wolverine.

The event was run in partnership with conversational artificial intelligence (AI) platform, Certainly, which joined the retailers in the broad discussion.

Solving problems in ecommerce

The roundtablers discussed several ways they are changing their services to deal with ever-increasing customer demands.

Some have dedicated members of staff responding to Trustpilot reviews, who have the task of appeasing shoppers unhappy with the service levels they received. The aim is to stop these complaints being elevated to social media, which the retailers’ agreed is hugely damaging to a brand.

“People will use every channel to complain – and do so at the same time, which amplifies the feeling of disgruntlement,” said one retailer.

Some retailers have staff dedicated to responding to Trustpilot reviews
Some retailers have staff dedicated to responding to Trustpilot reviews

Another guest said “a bad review online can last a very long time”, while another explained that people within their business are tasked with monitoring and responding to reviews to ensure customers are listened to.

The current challenges in the supply chain, which for various reasons including Brexit red tape and logistical and financial issues related to the pandemic, means there are hold-ups in materials and products finding their way from manufacturing facilities to retailers, and subsequently to customers.

This is a huge issues for the wider retail industry at present, and causing customer dissatisfaction.

“Everyone expects an Amazon-like service which is difficult to replicate, especially in this unprecedented period,” said one retailer, while another added the supply chain challenges are creating more refund issues than in less turbulent times.

Providing as many options to customers as possible and maintaining regular communication with them were cited as ways of placating disappointed shoppers.

Sometimes the solutions can cause more problems, though. One retailer spoke about their social strategy comprising creating as much content as possible – particularly in the voice of the company founder – but this approach can drive additional incoming queries from customers who want to know more, and the team can’t cope with demand.

Where technology can help

The idea that AI-powered chatbots can solve lots of these issues was mooted during the discussions.

Indeed, the total number of chatbot messaging apps accessed globally will increase from 3.5 billion in 2022 to 9.5 billion by 2026, according to a study by Juniper Research.

Representing growth of 169%, the uplift in usage will be driven by the increasing adoption of omnichannel retail strategies by ecommerce players and the rising integration of chatbots within messaging platforms, the report says.

Juniper said retail spend over chatbot messaging apps will account for over 50% of global chatbot retail spend by 2026, adding that the rapid development of messaging app functionalities will attract high‑value online retailers to chatbot messaging apps over competing channels.

Retailers at the roundtable named Zara, HSBC and British Gas as successful deployers of chatbots for customer service, with some saying they are keen to use AI and automation in the early stages of online customer interactions before elevating contact to humans when the time is right.

Several retailers bemoaned the challenges they face with legacy systems, which makes it difficult to add chatbots and other tech into their ecommerce platforms – even though they would love to see investment in this innovation.

This situation contributes to a scenario whereby it becomes more difficult to build a business case for such investment, argued one retailer.

Replying to that, another guest said it is crucial retailers do more to ensure their businesses are in a position where they are ready to add new partners and tech suppliers to help support service levels. Integration should not be an issue, she stated.

Future challenges

Tech can help with many of the issues retailers are facing at present – for one, automation deployed correctly can make up for the talent shortfall many retailers are facing. It can also help existing members of staff deal with the high levels of queries, complaints, returns, and sizing issues retailers face on a daily basis.

Fashion retailer Tiger of Sweden, for example, has worked with Certainly to use AI to help shoppers find the right the right fit online, first time.

Tiger of Sweden's chatbot
Tiger of Sweden’s chatbot

According to Henrik Fabrin, CEO & co-founder of Certainly, who joined the retailers at the roundtable, this partnership has helped Tiger of Sweden to increase conversion rates and average order value, while driving up customer satisfaction from 67% to 96% – as well as halving the human agents’ response time.

With Google phasing out cookies in its Chrome browser over the next few years and Apple’s decision to heighten privacy by making cross-app tracking an ‘opt-in’ choice rather than an assumed customer requirement, access to customer data becomes a lot more complicated.

Online quizzes and competitions, retailer newsletter lists, and loyalty schemes are all methods that can be used to get access to zero-party data, which is all important for ongoing customer communication, but chatbots can also play a part here.

Retailers can use this technology to understand their customer concerns and receive personal information about shoppers that can help shape their business proposition in the future.

Judging by conversations at the roundtable, the drive for more zero-party data is on most retailers’ agendas, and they are considering ways all their customer service channels can help them achieve these goals.

Fabrin commented: “Conversational AI technology is now so mature that early adopters are benefiting, and as the tech continues to improve so will the results for retailers.

“With retailers dealing with so many different challenges in terms of customer service, the forward-thinking ones are looking at how AI capability can help staff manage ticket deflection, provide sales support when visitors are on product pages, and contend with the barrage of in-coming customer communications.”

He added: “Ultimately, the best customer service and sales support is when we reach a state, supported by AI, where a retailer can have infinite number of conversations with customers and those conversations are personalised based on the purchase occasion, not their past behaviour or third-party data – when it is based on real-time zero-party data that the visitor provides during the conversation.

“A customer wants to be heard, they want instant answers to their questions, and to understand their query has been dealt with appropriately or that their purchase is the right one – and a combination of people and tech can facilitate that.”

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