There is a considerable discussion among loyalty marketers today about artificial intelligence and its potential impact now and in the future.

Loyalty360 caught up with Chris Hall, vice president of customer engagement solutions at Pitney Bowes, to learn more about this burgeoning field and its myriad of ramifications. 

How are businesses are leveraging new technology (like virtual assistants) to enable a greater sensory experience for customers?
Hall: Many retail experts today are talking about the “Retail Apocalypse,” which suggests that the industry is being flipped upside down and undergoing an epic transformation. It all began with the internet and bringing the shopping experience online, soon to be followed by mobile, which brought the experience literally into the hands of the on-the-go customer.
In the past couple years, technologies like AR and VR have created yet more channels for retailers to engage with customers, and most recently, virtual assistants like Google Home are creating customer experiences only imagined just a few years ago.

Virtual assistants, in particular, offer a customer experience completely different from other channels. They’re the perfect combination of physical and digital. They allow customers to speak to a device (much like they would a real-life customer service rep) and accomplish simple tasks digitally, without ever having to leave their home, open a laptop, or input their payment information.

For today’s customers, they want easy. They want an experience that’s personal, but without having to be in-person. They want to make payments, but without having to fill out their credit card information with every purchase. They want to be able to self-serve, but without leaning on a service representative to do so. Virtual assistants do just that, and I believe, will be the benchmark for how brands interact with customers in the coming years.

What is being done well in this area and where do the challenges lie?
Hall: There are already businesses that are leveraging this new technology and doing it successfully. Take Amazon, for example, which also makes Amazon Echo. During Amazon Prime Day (earlier this month), it offered customers purchasing through the voice-activated device special offers on products. This is a great example of a brand that’s leveraging this technology to engage with loyal customers to promote goods and offer incentives. There are over 15,000 skills, or virtual assistant use cases already on the Echo platform providing new and different ways for consumers to interact with brands.
For Amazon, its transition to doing business through these devices is natural, largely due to the fact it manufactures the devices and had a plan in place early on to do business with them. But for many businesses, voice-activated devices haven’t been a part of their customer experience strategies. Many retailers have been playing catch-up for years, just to ensure they’re offering a consistent experience in-store, online, and through mobile devices.
Virtual assistants add yet one more layer of complexity for retailers, but it’s not a channel that can be ignored. Businesses will need to become more reliant on vendors that can deliver solutions that help integrate these emerging platforms to deliver precise and relevant communication to individual customers.

What role do loyalty programs play in today’s retail, tech-laden landscape?
Hall: Loyalty programs are still are a major factor in the retail landscape. However, customers need to feel that by joining a loyalty program, they’re getting something in return. For today’s savvy customer, that often comes in the form of discounts and special product offerings. Again, Amazon does this well with Prime Day, which offers steep discounts to Prime Members.
For retailers who sell goods through marketplaces, like Amazon, Prime Day is a great opportunity to expose themselves to larger customer bases they may not have tapped in to previously. However, retailers and marketplaces alike cannot just rely on loyalty programs and loyalty days to drive the customer experience. Customer experience is a 24/7 initiative that has to remain a top business priority at all times.

Can you talk about AI and where you think it is now, how it can impact loyalty marketers, and where it might be headed?
Hall: AI has been around for several years, traditionally being used behind the scenes to help with manufacturing and logistics. But AI still has a long way to go, and I don’t believe the full power of this technology has been felt in the industry, particularly when it comes to customer interactions.
We live in a world where customers want to self-serve and be understood. If they need to find a certain product or need an answer to a question, they want to be able to find it quickly on their own, without having to interact with a human but want the system to “know” and “understand” their needs.  That is where machine learning and AI comes in.

As a manifestation of this, chatbots have exploded on the scene, especially with Facebook’s new chatbot capabilities that allow customers to interact with brands through the social media platform to ask questions, order products, and receive real-time shipping and tracking information on their products.
For loyalty marketers, in particular, AI and chatbots create a channel of engagement that allows brands to interact with their customers on a platform the customer prefers to communicate through, when they want to communicate, and in a way that allows them to self-serve.

How can companies disrupt the volatile retail landscape?
Hall: The retail landscape is changing, primarily in the ways that retailers interact with customers. But what should always be consistent is the customer experience. Regardless of the channel or the technology, customer experience is king.
Brands with exceptional customer service are the disruptors in the industry. They set the tone for how retail will look in the future, and they create the benchmark that competitors strive to emulate. 

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