Post-COVID Customer Service: Where AI Can Help

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Chain Drug Review published “Post-COVID Customer Service: Where AI Can Help” by Matt Katz and Chris Ventry looking at how artificial intelligence can help retailers trying to meet evolving customer service needs in a new environment.

“While customers’ patience and expectations have changed with the pandemic, in many instances, they’ve reverted back to pre-COVID levels. Now with cities reopening, vaccination rates reaching 60% or higher in adult populations, and post-pandemic inflation hitting us, customers are out shopping, paying more and expecting more for their money. For retailers trying to meet their customer service needs, “experiencing high call volumes” and “COVID-related disruptions” will no longer cut it as excuses. And for those customer support teams that themselves need support, a well-executed AI rollout can make a difference. But we emphasize at the outset, AI is not a panacea.

Of course, COVID drove massive disruption from both retail and consumer perspectives. We had been a nation of “consumer first” and “the customer is always right,” with Amazon pushing us to expect one-day receipt of goods. In short, as consumers, we were very used to getting what we wanted, when we wanted it. Then came the pandemic … and where we might have purchased Charmin toilet paper from Walmart.com, suddenly we found ourselves happy to get Quilted Northern at Target.com, that’s if it were available. Brand substitution was the norm during COVID.

On the positive, consumers also dug deep and found a surprising amount of empathy with retailers’ customer service efforts — technologies that may not have been embraced before, such as chat windows, chatbots, mobile messaging or being called back from a phone queue, suddenly became tolerable. Now as we embrace reopening, customers are reverting back to their highly expectant, sometimes even entitled ways. Where AI might play a role in the above Charmin stock-out situation would be to apply what was learned from the customer’s prior purchasing history and preferences, proactively communicate alternatives and make preemptive suggestions that would have given the customer a better sense of control. And from the back and forth, AI would continue to learn and come up with ways to leave the customer with a more satisfying resolution.

With inflation kicking in for the first time in 30 years, customers paying more also means that they are expecting better service as a result and, indeed, their acceptance of COVID-related explanations for delay is waning. While consumers shifted to interacting more efficiently online and digitally, their expectation of enhanced service also moved online. In the meantime, however, customers’ desire to interact with customer service isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.

This is good news for retail pharmacies and chain drug retailers, even if it means more thought and investment around the customer service experience. We say this because customer service may now be a retail drug chain’s best opportunity to interact directly with a current or prospective customer. As the hard work of connecting was initiated by the customer, retailers now need to show up for them in these customer service interactions. Ironically, the customer’s effort to connect already points to a potentially negative experience if the interaction is less than stellar. Retailers must now do everything in their power to not make customers work harder — to make it seamless and think of the customer service journey as free traffic and an engagement opportunity.”

Read the full article here.

Matt Katz

Matt Katz serves as a Managing Partner and heads the Retail & Consumer Packaged Goods and Private Equity practices at SSA & Company



Chris Ventry serves as a Vice President in the Retail & Consumer Packaged Goods practice at SSA & Company



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