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How to Prepare for Peak (And Return) Season

How to Prepare for Peak (And Return) Season

How to Prepare for Peak (And Return) Season

Conversational AI engagement platforms can help shoulder the load.

Retailers are preparing for peak season by analyzing consumer behavior trends, tuning up their tech, adjusting staffing levels, and shoring up logistics.

But it’s also a good time to prepare for the tidal wave of returns that will come on the heels of this year’s holiday shopping frenzy.

As shoppers look to exchange gifts for cash, credit, or other merchandise, this process can present a broad range of challenges for contact centers and customer experience (CX) teams.

From accurately answering questions about what’s in stock to tracking down purchases and sharing order updates and shipping statuses, contact centers are seeking out solutions like intelligent engagement platforms to provide consistent, seamless, and secure experiences.

Look Back to Look Ahead

The 2021 holiday season posted impressive numbers for retailers, driven by wage growth, government stimulus, and inflation, across all channels.

Still, The New York Times recently reported that people returned 16.6% of their 2021 purchases, which was up from 10.6% in 2020, a number that was more than double the 2019 rate of returns. (The number is even higher for online only retailers.) This amounts to more than $760 billion in returned merchandise, which can both affect profit margins and slow down your overall operation.

Complicating these figures is the National Retail Federation’s estimate that about 10% of these returns involved some element of fraud.

At the same time, emerging Salesforce research indicates that 51% of consumers are planning to make fewer purchases this upcoming holiday season. Whether this is due to inflation, supply chain disruptions, or other factors, this year’s peak season seems posed for disruption.

Consider too: that retailers can spend about two-thirds of a product's cost to process a return. Also that the cost of goods remains high. Therefore it's never been more critical to contain fulfillment and returns-related expenses. While improving the customer and employee experience.

Retailers must bring digital insights into physical spaces, creating an omnichannel experience.

Looking ahead for the 2022 holiday season, the past year has shown that retailers must meet customers where they are at and provide a seamless experience across both digital and physical channels to accommodate the hybrid shopper.

Retailers must bring digital insights into physical spaces, creating an omnichannel experience. Since a shopper’s journey can begin just when they discover something in their social feeds, retailers must keep in mind reaching hybrid shoppers this upcoming holiday season to counterbalance early shopping.

Integrate AI-Powered Technologies into Workflows and Fulfillment Operations

As retailers face these realities, many are reimagining workflows and how technology, notably artificial intelligence (AI), is integrated into their fulfillment operations.

All of this begins with a well-defined strategy for your contact center...

For example, some retailers are looking toward virtual try-on technology that is estimated to reduce return costs significantly. Others are exploring front-door pickup solutions designed to streamline the CX with package returns. And of course, AI-guided technology can help optimize inventory management.

Inventory management is not the only application of AI for retailers; contact centers are increasingly embracing AI-powered technology to give shoppers and agents effortless, conversational experiences across all engagement channels.

All of this begins with a well-defined strategy for your contact center and how you prefer to approach each shopper interaction.

For example, do you want to live chat or talk with customers to increase conversion rates? If so, should these engagements occur only with high-value customers and/or big-ticket items? Or should this apply to any customer interaction, regardless of value?

Alternatively, you might be focused on reducing contact center costs, and therefore creating automated, self-service options for low-value tasks is an area of consideration.

Still other retail-serving contact centers will take a hybrid approach that embraces automation as a first line of defense. Here, a virtual assistant can handle as many orders, returns, and refunds as possible and looping in a live agent only when it’s time to escalate.

Order status inquiries is an area where this hybrid approach is imperative, particularly during the busy holiday season and post-holiday return window. That is, customers want frequent, accurate information.

When you can send customers proactive, automated notifications with order status details (such as shipping updates, stock availability, and information about return/refund status), you can not only reduce contact volumes, but you can also increase customer satisfaction.

So, when it’s time for the human touch, a live agent can seamlessly join the conversation with the white-glove service your customers expect, in the same channel as previous interactions.

More Technology Does Not Mean You Lose the Human Touch

When we’re talking about AI-powered technologies in the contact center, one concern that consistently comes up is the idea that people’s jobs will be automated away.

On the contrary, the number of live agent interactions, according to McKinsey, continues to grow, and in fact requires continued investment in training and talent development.

A conversational AI solution plays an essential role here, too. With an intelligent engagement platform on board, agents gain access to real-time call “coaching,” which serves up the right information at the right moment.

For example, let’s say one of your products winds up on an influencer’s list of “must-have gifts for the person who has everything,” and it goes viral on social media. In a matter of hours, it’s sold out online and your brick-and-mortar stores are running out of inventory.

In this event a would-be customer engages your contact center to be placed on a waitlist, which your agent can accommodate.

But better yet, with fast, seamless access to an internal virtual assistant that’s monitoring the interaction in real-time, your agent can serve up alternative product recommendations, secure a sale, and likely creating a much happier customer (and agent) in the moment.

On the other hand, a customer may reach out to the contact center to return a holiday gift, but they’ve waited a few days past the published policy.

This scenario may become even more common as people are expected to start their 2022 holiday shopping season earlier than ever, whether to snap up trendy items before they’re out of stock or to get ahead of inflationary impacts on pricing.

The intelligent engagement platform can put this policy at the agent’s fingertips, along with effective scripts and standardized responses to help guide them through what could potentially be a fraught conversation.

There might be a workaround for this customer in the form of store credit, pre-selected products acceptable for an exchange, or what have you; the AI-powered platform can provide the agent with these recommendations.

Imagine the pair of shoes grandma bought in September for your child’s Christmas – but now they’re too small and can no longer be returned. What may represent a lost customer forever could instead transform in a satisfied customer-for-life, depending on how the interaction goes.

In addition, with real-time conversation monitoring, including sentiment analysis, AI can give your agent a quick overview of how the interaction is progressing. If the agent needs to change course to better engage the customer, those insights and next best actions are available.

Improving Future Engagements

One of the more compelling aspects of AI-powered platforms is their ability to continually learn. By mining insights from every customer conversation, contact centers can apply lessons learned and replicate best practices in both self-service and human-assisted interactions.

As one example, the AI platform may identify an opportunity to tweak agent scripts based on previous dialog flows and outcomes.

Based on valuable insights, the AI platform could interject and change the script to provide highly relevant information based on customer history and monitoring past conversations to proactively offer next best response recommendations.

Not only does this learning ability with AI build a more consistent experience for both customers and agents, but it also helps your contact center build in greater operational resilience, agent satisfaction, and improved efficiencies. Because satisfied agents are less likely to quit, your contact center may save on finding, training, and retaining agents as well.

Protecting Reputations by Preventing Fraud

The cost of retail fraud truly stacks up – and those figures don’t always account for the damage to a brand’s reputation and lost customer trust. Contact centers must do more to tighten up their fraud prevention practices, and conversational AI solutions are ideally suited for this.

Biometric authentication eliminates the need for passwords and other forms of authentication that can be difficult for customers to remember; these are also too easy for fraudsters to find.

Voice biometrics, for example, uses an individual’s unique voiceprint, something that cannot be spoofed or replicated. Likewise, behavioral biometrics track patterns such as how someone types to identify suspicious patterns that may indicate a fraudster is trying to gain access to a customer account.

Contact centers must do more to tighten up their fraud prevention practices, and conversational AI solutions are ideally suited for this.

Not only does this approach enhance your contact center’s fraud prevention program, but it also smooths out the authentication process for customers and agents – removing friction from the process to make it easier than ever to quickly connect a legitimate customer with the information they need.

Taking the Next Step with Omnichannel AI

Getting started with leveraging AI in the contact center may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Many success stories begin by engaging an experienced AI vendor who specializes in contact center AI and understands how to seamlessly integrate both customer-facing and agent-empowering technologies.

In so doing, contact centers can reap tremendous, year-round benefits, from reduced average handle times and increased call deflection to increased customer conversion and improved agent satisfaction metrics. But in the short term, building in the solutions and tools necessary to prepare for peak season – and the returns that follow it – are enticing enough.

Seb Reeve

Seb Reeve

Seb Reeve is Director of International Go-To-Market, Intelligent Engagement at Nuance Communications.

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