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If you don't ask the right question, you probably won't get the answer you need.

A recent survey conducted by Oracle NetSuite, Wakefield Research and The Retail Doctor found a mismatch between what retail executives think their customers want and what those customers say they want.

For example, 87% of executives believe that consumers would feel more welcome in stores if staff interacted with them more, but only 46% of Australian consumers agreed, with nearly a third saying they would feel more annoyed.

We've all been there, haven't we? Set foot in some shops and a member of staff will rush up to you, but when you need help they're nowhere to be seen.

But the survey also found that Australians do not want to interact with chatbots: 48% of Australian consumers never use AI-assisted chat windows, 4% opt to use them all the time, and only 1% actually want to use them.

The thing is, how do you know whether there's a chatbot or a person behind a chat window? That's assuming the chatbot works well, and that you're not told one way or the other.

I don't know about you, but I don't really care as long as I get accurate information quickly. Does this shirt come in blue? Is this item in stock at my local store? Is this glue suitable for sticking polyethylene? How long does this item run between recharges?

So I wasn't surprised to hear Mountain Bike Direct co-founder Jen Geale say that while her company currently works to provide "exceptional customer service" exclusively via chat and email with staff who are all mountain bikers or mountain bike mechanics, she's interested in applying AI to enhance the customer experience without depersonalising it.

"The people we have are passionate about what they do," she told NetSuite's SuiteConnect conference in Sydney yesterday, but finding the right people to work in the business is a challenge. Hence there is potential value in applying AI to amplify the efforts of the existing employees.

Even though I'm not convinced that there's no need for chatbots, I find it easy to believe another finding of the survey: that retail executives over-rate social media.

According to the research, 100% of Australian retail executives think engaging with customers on social media is important to building stronger relationships with them, but only 10% of Australian consumers think it has a significant impact on the way they think or feel about a brand.

A reliance on social media is risky, because someone else sets the rules. Think about the way your organic (unpaid) reach has fallen as a result of decisions made by Facebook, or the way that rules set in a relatively conservative country affect what the rest of the world can post (think #freethenipple for example, particularly in the context of breastfeeding before Facebook changed its position in 2014).

Even though search engine algorithms may change, a basically well-constructed site with an appropriate domain name can always be found by your customers.

These days, "well-constructed" means it has to work well on mobile devices.

Mountain Bike Direct's site is mostly browsed from mobile devices, said Geale, and more than half of the transactions are from devices rather than computers.

Don't be lulled into thinking that you can get away with delivering a poor mobile experience if you're not marketing to younger people. As a 60-something consumer said to me recently, "there is absolutely no point having a website that doesn't work properly on an iPad." And I'm sure I'm not the only person who knows 70- or 80-year-olds who aren't just "mobile first" but "mobile only" when it comes to pre-purchase research or actually buying online.

Disclosure: The writer attended SuiteConnect Sydney as a guest of Oracle NetSuite.

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

 

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