personalization, AI, technology

As multichannel platforms continue to become commonplace, merchants are shifting their focus to the actual experience that shoppers have inside their stores.

Coupled with the soaring attention — and success — of artificial intelligence, retailers have the potential to collect pertinent data regarding consumer behavior and predict future preferences to enhance the overall shopping experience. And though the technology is readily available, personalization remains a somewhat untapped resource. Here, Fang Cheng, chief executive officer of Linc Global, a personalization and digital experience organization, discusses how the role of customized shopping experiences is evolving, who’s doing it well and the role of mobile in it.

WWD: How has the role of personalization evolved in the last 12 months — what are the main contributing factors to this?

Fang Cheng: Personalization used to solely focus on recommending products and pushing them to very targeted and small customer segments. Today we are seeing the reach of personalization extend beyond this into truly personalized, contextually aware interactions that add value and help the customer achieve their goal.

Customer expectations are largely responsible for this shift in personalization. Today’s customers willingly share an immense amount of information with brands through their digital and physical interactions, and in return they expect fast, personalized service across an increasing range of channels, otherwise they will find a brand that meets their needs. AI is solving this friction point at scale and in a cost-effective way by quickly bringing together disparate data silos and leveraging an understanding of the customer’s history, their profile and their current status to give them what they want in real-time. The foundation is the platforms themselves and the improvements are in the capabilities and customer adoption innovations — specifically voice and chat platforms like Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Facebook Messenger.

The industry as a whole is moving from offering personalized marketing efforts into full customer care automation — where real-time personalized assistance is being used to not only recommend products, but provide immediate answers and resolutions to questions. It’s also offering shipping information and updates, assist with returns and exchange and process on-demand reordering of products with upsells and sampling.

WWD: How has the growth of mobile commerce affected personalization?

F.C.: Mobile commerce has played a key role in shifting customers’ expectations from experiencing immediate delight from an app to getting what they need in real-time — it all happens wherever a customer is, and in their hand, thanks to mobile commerce.

Switching costs have never been so low and every time a new app or web site ups the ante on a new standard for personalized assistance, immediate gratification, or a delightful experience that rewards the user, customers also adopt that same standard for other brands. Though not quite a fair expectation, customers are fickle and brands are now challenged to continuously innovate, be omnipresent across channels, exceed expectations and succeed commercially, all while keeping costs down.

WWD: What are best practices that should be considered in deploying a personalization platform?

F.C.: Priority needs to be given to repeat customers. They’re the lifeblood of the business. Converting one-time purchasers into lifetime customers is at the heart of customer care automation; offering customers real-time solutions, immediate answers and a great experience means they will come back to shop again and become a profitable customer for the brand.

It’s also critical to recognize that scalability of personal interaction is now the gold standard of personalization. Providing products that suit a customer is one thing, but adding a layer of service with the type of care and value they want throughout their buying and re-buying journey is what will deliver ROI and increase customer lifetime value.

Brands and retailers also need to recognize that emerging channels like chat and voice are not scaled-down or modified versions of other channels. An email campaign can’t be sent on Facebook Messenger – it’s not the same form of communication. It would be like trying to take a brand’s YouTube ad and have an in-store associate deliver it to a customer.

WWD: What brands are extending personalization well?

F.C.: JustFab and ShoeDazzle are innovators in their personalization approaches. This year they launched personalized customer care on Facebook Messenger and promote this instead of an email support channel. By doing this, they are offering real-time help with memberships, orders, delivery all by combining Linc’s customer care automation platform with human agents. This combination gives them the ability to scale their personalized service and utilize a communication platform that is preferred by their customers, all while keeping the costs down.

Successful personalization today means understanding customers beyond their product preferences. Channel preferences, expectations and needs should be factored in.

To win at personalization, they are focusing on what factors create stronger customer relationships and leveraging technology to do the heavy lifting. Other superstars like Sephora show us that it pays to consider the value offered to a customer — beyond just the product they ship to the customer.

WWD: How will voice-control assistants affect personalization?

F.C.: We’re seeing a rapid rise in the adoption of voice-first devices in consumers’ homes, and the recent Prime Day figures show that the small Echo device was the most popular seller, which shows us that the voice-first platform is not going away.

The interaction with a voice assistant is very personal, very real and immediate. There’s no time wasted, no distractions and tasks that previously were time-consuming are now expedited. With voice, inefficiency is thrown to the curb and you’re left with a quick interaction that needs no physical connection to a device.

The key for planning for this is to understand what’s already possible. Operations, customer care and e-commerce professionals are being challenged to meet customer expectations without blowing out their budgets, and may not be aware that solutions are being used already to do just that. For example, tracking, returns, exchanges, reordering, sampling and product recommendations on voice platforms are already live and available, and in-use by customers every day.

Starting with customer care use-cases is the easiest and fastest to deploy, while also offering the benefit of limiting investment cost and risk and offering your customer the level of service and immediacy they are in search of.

WWD: How can brands discern the most appropriate personalization model for their audience?

F.C.: Assuming a brand has some product personalization and marketing in place already, the next step is to extend personalization through the customer buying cycle — so that they’re more likely to buy again. The smart thinking has moved past how to increase conversions as acquiring customers has become more expensive and successful brands are showing that loyalty and repeat purchase customers are worth investments. Genuine value through service and engagement is what builds and strengthens the relationship that a brand needs to nurture in order to see a customer come back again.

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