The Rise Of The Voice-Enabled Associate

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The retail apocalypse has been hotly debated within the halls of retailers and at the desks of industry analysts. For many years, the industry blamed Amazon for stealing all of its sales. Then, in just the past year, retailers have begun to take ownership of the issue. And rather than blame a competitor, the industry looked within its own environment and discovered that in-store experiences haven’t evolved in decades. The stale experience, coupled with the rising expectations of always-connected customers, forced retail store operators to rethink the role of the store and how to empower its greatest asset: associates. 

Meeting Customer Expectations Today Requires Faster, Smarter Service

Let’s face it; one of the most awkward experiences in a retail store is working with a disconnected, disengaged associate. However, think about that experience from the role of the associate. They are relatively new to the company, they don’t know the products well (yet), and they’re still getting to know the team. And since 80% of shoppers have done research online before coming into the store, associates are required to be on their game from the moment the customer enters the door. Unfortunately, many associates are not offered the right technology to meet the needs of customers. 

But What About Smartphones?

They’ve been around for more than ten years, and nearly every consumer in the US has one. In fact, retailers have tried…and failed… to implement smartphones as the associate enablement tool for various reasons, including:

  • High capital expenditure – Investment in smartphones for every associate is expensive. Scanners are expensive too.
  • Device management unwieldy – Managing both the hardware and software of employer-provided mobile devices can be expensive and difficult to manage. Mobile device management teams are big and require resources to keep them operational.
  • Awkward to use – To answer any customer question on a screen-based mobile device, an associate must type into a small keyboard and search on a small screen. Their head is down and they aren’t engaged with the customer.

Don’t just take my word for it. Visit your local stores and count how many associates are truly connected to the network and all of their company’s enterprise data. Even at the Apple store, they use walkie-talkies to communicate. Customers today require a faster, more personalized level of service that can only be delivered when every associate is connected to each other and to enterprise systems.

Voice Technology Transforms Associate Performance

If smartphones are “out” as the preferred associate mobility solution, what kind of solution is needed to help retail stores transform their experiences. Today’s associate mobility solution must be:

  • Agile - The associate mobile solution must be agile and allow the associate to work “on-demand.” Tasks must be delivered in real-time, and the solution must change functions quickly based on whether the associate is engaged with a customer or tackling back-room tasks.
  • Contextual – The solution must be contextual to the needs of the associate, and also contextual to the preferences of the customer. For instance, the solution must know your location so that it can deliver product guidance based on products you are near, or safety training as you’ve entered the loading doc. The solution also needs to provide the associate with some context of the customer and recall information about that customer, including items that might be left in their shopping cart or their loyalty status.
  • Collaborative – The associate mobile solution needs to foster real-time collaboration between team members. Often, the answer to a question is held by “tribal knowledge” and accessing the wisdom of the team is critical for driving success. Bulky integrations aren’t necessary, but fast, reliable connectivity to other associates is critical.
  • Connected – To create a mobile solution that met the needs of customers, every single associate would be connected. No exceptions.
  • Conversational – Using voice technology greatly enhances the performance of associate mobility solutions. Search is quick, and the experience is significantly improved for both the customer and the associate.
  • Measurable – New associate tools must be measurable to ensure the applications are benefitting the associate. Applications that measure whether the associate is comfortable in their role and engaged offer the ability to coach struggling employees before they derail.

The unique combination of speech technology, AI, and wearable technology provides a solution to all of the required elements above. Using voice technology, associates can request and receive information much faster than using a search function on a smartphone. Leveraging the power of artificial intelligence, associate enablement tools can understand natural language and can provide responses that are contextual based on the skill set of the associate. And leveraging wearable technology allows associates to access the voice-controlled mobile platform on the sales floor, without pulling out a smartphone from their apron or pocket.   

Connect Your Workforce, or Risk Being Disconnected From Your Customers

There’s no way around it. Every employee, especially front-line employees, will have to be connected to a new breed of mobile solution; one that leverages voice, AI, and IoT to deliver an exceptional customer and associate experience. That’s a lot to apply for most retailers, especially since they are traditionally set in their ways and resist changing hardened processes. However, retail leaders will take the plunge and rethink how their associates collaborate with each other and how they connect with enterprise systems. Leading retailers will be successful when they:

  • Refine employee processes based on customer and associate journeys – Throw out old processes that don’t apply to today’s workforce or shopper. Associates must be more agile and nimble, and rigid processes that are bulky will stifle associate productivity. Retailers must redefine standard operating procedures based on the needs of customers. And customers today want a responsive, smart experience.
  • Find a voice partner – I’m not referring to hiring a vocal coach here. Voice recognition software is becoming a commodity, and most retailers should buy instead of building their voice platform.
  • Leverage a purpose-built intelligent assistant – What’s going to sit on top of your voice recognition software? Having an intelligent assistant who can interpret employee intent and either connect the employee to a peer or an enterprise data source will be the interface of the future for associates.
  • Determine what you will do with the analytics – Understanding how employees communicate, coupled with the rich data from their voice-controlled IoT computer, will provide retailers with a boon of new associate data. Leveraging this data to drive continuous improvements is the key to success for stores.
  • Connect everyone – Throw out the old Capex model and find a partner who can deliver a complete voice-controlled mobile service that is all-inclusive. When you buy access to a SaaS based workforce communication platform, you can easily connect everyone to the network without having to worry about capex or device management. 

It’s time to learn from our experiences and stop trying to wedge in a smartphone into the store environment. Leading retailers will find purpose-built voice solutions that not only drive customer engagement, but also dramatically improves operational excellence, leading to a healthy ROI and a transformed store environment.

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