Improving Real Customer Connection Through Real Virtualities

Calling customer service hotlines is rarely an enjoyable experience. Long wait times have always been an issue, but the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified this negative experience for consumers. The now ubiquitous message of unusually heavy call volumes that have driven up wait times is, according to experts, actually due to a widespread decrease in call center employees, not an increase in callers.

Waiting on hold for hours to reach a customer service representative about returning an item, changing a flight, or requesting a refund is not only frustrating for consumers, but it also hits on a particularly sensitive nerve right now: a widespread lack of human connection. Customers want to feel heard, and the use of outdated technology in automated call centers sends the opposite message. But this doesn't have to be the case.

Enhancing Virtual Customer Service

Accenture's recent Business Futures report shows that 88 percent of C-suite executives are investing in new and innovative technologies to create virtual environments, or Real Virtualities, for workplaces and beyond. These kinds of immersive technologies also could improve customer service and the entire online shopping experience, therefore limiting the need for customer service in the first place. With the rapid expansion of technology and artificial intelligence's capacity to bring the in-person experience to consumers no matter where they are, there is no reason for customers to feel disconnected and isolated. Companies today need to keep up with the technology available to them if they want to attract customers and keep them happy.

Consumers expect seamless and personalized service. Enhancing customer service is imperative for companies, as 96 percent of consumers are ready to take their service elsewhere after bad service, a Forbes study found. But this kind of personalized attention is difficult to deliver for large companies dealing with hundreds or even thousands of callers, all with different issues and questions. Investing in and implementing cutting-edge AI technologies will allow customers to feel heard and vastly increase efficiency in call centers with heavy traffic.

Seventy percent of consumers prefer messaging over voice when contacting customer care, and yet many companies still rely on outdated and easily backed-up phone lines to manage customer complaints and inquiries. Expanding and improving text-services by employing AI allows customers to seek service on their own time, improving customer experience as well as offering a more cost-effective and streamlined process for companies.

Using Technology Proactively

It is important to remember that improving customer service should begin before the need for assistance.

Digital shelf solutions leverage immersive AI, image recognition, and object detection combined with fixed cameras in the store to alert store associates with out-of-shelf monitoring, planogram monitoring, intelligent pricing, and foot traffic patterns to help retailers and their suppliers reach a vast, interested audience. This can mean big opportunities for growth in business. AI can also be used to display digital signage on the shelf as the best way to attract shoppers to stop by the target shelf and prolong their dwell time, which leads to higher conversion rates and new acquisition. Retailers are also enabling the point-of-sale marketing and advertising with dynamic video and animation around their digital shelves.

Another prominent attribute of AI in consumerism is convergence of AI rendering ultra-convenience to consumers. For example, we worked with a multimedia messaging app provider to partner with premier brands, allowing its users to virtually try on trendy sneakers via an exclusive augmented reality lens and purchase the product directly from the platform. The seamless shopping experience was further enhanced by adding AI-based voice assistants to consumer support services. Convergence of omnichannel AI (e.g., voice, image, video, AR/VR) is the holy grail that is expected to dramatically shape the rapid rise of social commerce for consumers.

The need for increased efficiency and improved service also extends to shipping and processing. Our Accenture research team found that only 49 percent of company executives feel their organizations are currently meeting customer expectations for order fulfillment. AI and other innovative technologies, such as route-optimization algorithms to reduce mileage and quantum routing to calculate the fastest route for vehicles, can also improve delivery and return times for consumers as well as help companies meet sustainability goals.

As companies innovate the ways we work through hybrid office spaces and virtual meeting rooms to improve their employees' experience, they must also consider the experience of the customer and the ways technology can improve all layers of their operations. While technology will never fully replace in-person experiences and human-to-human interaction, it remains our best tool to build and maintain connections with consumers, even from across the world.

Expanding into real virtualities by employing immersive technologies and AI will allow businesses to support consumers and gain their trust by improving the experience of shopping and customer service.

Lan Guan is a senior managing director in Accenture's Applied Intelligence practice.