Customer Service in a Contactless World

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed how we live. Consumers are changing how and what they buy, and organizations are responding with new operating models. The challenge for businesses is how to translate these new dynamics into meaningful changes to the customer journey. For businesses that have historically relied on physical interactions with their customers, whether in store, at home, or in other settings, this is a must-do priority.

The need for contactless service increased during the pandemic, accelerating consumer adoption of digital and artificial intelligence channels, such as mobile apps and virtual agents. Consequently, we're seeing humans and AI combining in new ways to redefine customer engagement, with digital and physical experiences complementing each other to create a contactless, 360-degree experience that enables routine tasks to be carried out quickly and efficiently.

One example is Amazon Go. The technology behind this experience automatically detects when products are taken from, or returned to, shelves in Amazon's stores and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. Once shoppers have finished, they can simply leave the store. Receipts will be sent to their Amazon accounts.

Another example is Nike's flagship store in New York. Here, mannequins have QR codes that customers can scan with their phones, asking a sales associate to bring them an item in a specific size and color. It's all part of enabling seamless shopping.

Retailers like Ikea, Wayfair, Target, and Lowe's have been rolling out AR and VR features that let customers view pieces of furniture in their homes or in virtual showrooms. Beauty companies from L'Oreal to Sephora have also embraced these technologies, with apps that help customers virtually try on makeup before buying. All these examples are much more than a retail industry fad. They point to growing opportunities for businesses of all kinds. Contactless experiences like these will ultimately transform companies' relationships with their customers.

All these examples have one thing in common: the innovative use of digital channels to reinvent how they interact with customers. The new experiences that are being created offer organizations a chance to capture completely new value. That ranges from achieving deeper understanding of customer behavior and needs, to making sales, and servicing each customer with a more personalized, immersive and safer interaction.

Of course, a transformation of this magnitude is challenging. To take advantage of these new digital + physical experiences, organizations need to start with a carefully calibrated approach, along with the technology transition strategies that will help them build the right foundation.

To give an example of how this is playing out in the real world, let's look at field service experiences. Thanks to AI and automation, field technicians can now complete most of their work from remote locations. This maintains the health and safety of the workforce and ensures customers' well-being. AI is also the key driver for self-service. In either case, the goal is to leverage the power of AI and other technologies to create more intelligent processes that provide excellent customer experiences at a lower cost.

A great example, already widely adopted isconversational AI assistants on websites or in corporate apps. These can interact with customers and provide effective guidance that promotes self-service. Conversational AI assistants use machine learning to not only resolve the customer issue first time but also suggest faster resolutions for similar issues, reduce churn, increase revenue, and deliver an enhanced customer interaction.

AI-powered engagement also includes proactive conversational AI. By automatically reaching out to customers when they need service support, it minimizes customer effort to resolve an issue. Across industries, businesses and their customers are experiencing the value of proactive conversational AI. Gartner forecasts that by 2025 the majority of customer service engagements will be proactive.

Visual AI, combined with conversational AI, can improve the whole experience even more. Going back to the field service example, by providing technicians with real-time images, they can understand an issue and provide informed instructions to the customer for rapid resolution. What's more, based on images uploaded, machine-learning algorithms can o?er insights and propose solutions to decision-makers using past recommendations, problem diagnoses, and other relevant contextual information. Visual AI capabilities also help operations, quality, training, and commercial departments to better understand challenges in the field and address them systematically in product/service design, workforce re-skilling, and policy/procedure changes.

Data, of course, is essential to all these use cases, and more. The success of digital + physical experiences relies on the personalization and precision enabled by high-fidelity data from customers, interactions, and field-workers. This data foundation is critical for organizations to both reimagine experiences and enable them in real time.

Digital + Physical = Real-World Benefits

All of the above technologies, if designed correctly, come together to improve remote experiences, enhance efficiency, and raise productivity. These technologies hold immense potential to transform how organizations bring value to their customers with innovative interaction and problem-solving capabilities that can be applied throughout a customer journey, even if that journey takes place over several days or even weeks. By finding more collaborative use cases and technical capabilities needed for technicians and customers to work together seamlessly, they will amplify the best qualities of both.

That said, digital + physical transformation isn't easy. It requires new technology capabilities, coordinated customer communications and campaigns, and changes to operating models and skills. However, with the right approach and partnerships, the journeys can be accelerated, as many organizations have demonstrated during the pandemic.

Each experience is different, and the nuances of those experiences need to be considered as part of the journey design. An even bigger question for many organizations is which experiences are ripe for a digital + physical world? But the most important question of all: is your organization ready to embrace the digital + physical world and embed services in your customers' lives, seamlessly, safely, and efficiently?

Sharad Sachdev is a leader in the AI practice at Accenture, leading the "AI-powered Customer Engagement" offering, in addition to broader focus on enterprise-wide adoption of AI across industries, including insurance, communications, travel, and health care.