Macy’s Mobile App Offers Self-Serve Options

A mixture of advanced technologies that combine digital agents (also known as bots) and artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive computing technologies (spanning analytics to machine learning algorithms) are coming together to transform customer service.

A recent example involves the venerable Macy’s department store. In partnership with IBM and Satisfi, a developer of mobile applications, the retailer is piloting a “Macy’s on Call” mobile application that allows customers to use natural-language queries to locate products and services in its stores without necessarily requiring help from a sales clerk.

Serena Potter, group vice president of digital media strategy for Macy’s, wrote in an email that the goal is not so much to eliminate the need for sales clerks as it is to enhance engagement with self-service tools that reside on the customer’s mobile device. Customers can even make use of speech recognition.

“Cognitive systems like Watson are an extremely helpful tool to augment our human intelligence, working side by side to give customers the best experience possible as they shop in our stores,” Potter added.

Potter reported that it took Macy’s only two months to get the pilot projects, which are available in English and Spanish, up and running. There’s no effort being made to quantify the return of investment on this project just yet.

The Virtual Digital Assistant Market Will Grow Quickly

The “Macy’s on Call” app is only the tip of a customer service transformation that is well under way. A new report from Tractica, a research and consulting firm that specializes in user interfaces, forecasts that the virtual digital assistant market will be worth $15.8 billion by 2021. The number of consumer virtual digital assistants in use will grow from 390 million in 2015 to 1.8 billion worldwide, while enterprise use of these devices will rise from 155 million in 2015 to 843 million by 2021.

While some form of virtual digital assistant has been commonly deployed on Websites to provide customer service for years, bots are now emerging that employ front ends—such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana or Amazon’s Echo—that make it possible to interact with virtual digital assistants without having to type or tap a screen.

Amy Stapleton, an industry analyst with Opus Research, notes that these virtual digital assistants are also getting a lot smarter, thanks to machine learning and other technologies such as neural networks. “Agents and bots will get a lot smarter over time,” she says. “What impact that will have on businesses and jobs remains to be seen.”

Stapleton says the real challenge facing organizations that want to employ these smarter agents is knowledge capture and management. While that’s not necessarily a new IT challenge, she points out that machine learning algorithms and other forms of artificial intelligence are starting to make that task simpler. The best part of a bot or virtual agent that employs these technologies, Stapleton adds, is that once they learn something by watching humans, they never forget it.

Business Transformation Projects Will Employ Smart Agents

In the meantime, Jean Hill, managing director for Alvarez & Marsal, a provider of global professional services, noted during a recent event in New York (hosted by IPsoft, developers of the Amelia virtual agent) that most digital business transformation projects are going to wind up employing smart agents to one degree or another. “A lot of organizations just don’t have the labor, talent and dollars to do it any other way,” she added.

In fact, just about every one of the global systems integrators—including IBM, Cognizant, Accenture and Deloitte—have created a dedicated digital business transformation practice that incorporates virtual digital agents augmented by a variety of AI technologies. Those firms would not be dedicating that many resources if they didn’t think there would be a lot of demand.

Of course, not every organization is necessarily going to need that kind of IT muscle. In many instances, these technologies will find their way into the enterprise as part of packaged applications. Rather than having to develop these advanced applications themselves, many application providers are already signaling how they plan to make them more accessible to a broader number of organizations.

IT organizations should start thinking now about how to use these technologies to transform the way they’re delivered to external customers, as well as how to provide IT support to internal users. After all, an internal user is just another customer that needs to be supported in the most cost-efficient way possible.