Retail

Staples Gets Chatty With Messenger

Retailers want to be where their customers are. With constant advancements in online, mobile and social commerce, that always-moving target of “where” can be something of a tricky one to nail down.

Staples, for one, is betting that Facebook Messenger — with its 900 million monthly users — presents a substantial opportunity for the company to connect with consumers (both existing and potential ones) in the social space.

In the wake of the announcement that the retail chain has gone live with Messenger chat functionality — and will soon be implementing chatbots on the social platform to provide automated customer service — MPD CEO Karen Webster spoke with Faisal Masud, Executive Vice President of Global eCommerce at Staples, to find out what the company believes makes Messenger stand out among other platforms as a potential driver of commerce.

Noting that a significant number of Staples customers already had a presence on Messenger (as did the company itself, using it in its customer service efforts), Masud tells Webster that the retailer chose Facebook’s standalone chat application as its current focus in the conversational commerce space for a couple of reasons.

One, the retailer has found it be effective in getting to know a lot more about their customers.

“We’re interacting with them on a whole different level now,” says Masud, “which raises our social awareness and theirs.”

The other motivating factor for Staples is that Facebook is going to enable, through chatbots, the ability to automate a lot of that messaging — something that Masud believes will be of particular effectiveness in the realm of customer service communications.

“A significant part of the contacts that are generated through phone, voice, email and chat,” he tells Webster, “are typically ‘where’s my stuff’,’ ‘my item came in late,’ ‘my item is damaged, how do I return this’ or something of that sort.”

With a completely automated process, Staples will soon be able to use bots “to answer customer needs immediately,” he adds.

While the role of customer service was once relegated to the back room operations of most retailers, the application of new technologies has seen it grow to become a strategic advantage: Customers want their problems solved immediately, and they are increasingly comfortable with innovations that can do so.

As Masud puts it: “The proximity of the transaction to the moment of the need has become much smaller.” His prediction is that conversational commerce will play a big role in this new reality.

He fully acknowledges that conversational commerce is still very much in its early days, but he also points out that “so was mobile traffic” at one time. So, Staples — no stranger in the realm of early adoption (as Webster notes, the retailer was one of the first big names to on board Apple Pay) — will be paying close attention to the channel’s development.

In that longer view, Staples is by no means exclusively hitching its wagon to the Messenger platform. Masud points to the company’s current development to incorporate voice recognition into its Easy (as in the branded “Easy Button”) system online as proving out the potential for the customer orders to be linked to, for example, Alexa.

“We’re agnostic,“ Masud tells Webster. “If the customer wants to buy from us, they should be able to [do so] from anywhere, [regardless] of the platform.”

Looking forward, Masud explains that Staples wants to have touchpoints with its customers that “go way beyond just their email address” — something that has effectively become, in today’s world of conversational commerce, “just another line on the Excel sheet.”

He posits that conversational commerce has a role to play not only in consumer transactions but in the B2B space as well, noting, for example, that there are multiple employees in different companies that use the Messenger platform.

“Having the social connection with those customers,” Masud tells Webster, “where they can literally text us anytime they want through Messenger, is a massive benefit for us because we get to learn about a lot of their other habits.”

“I’m a big believer that conversational commerce is going to be big,” observes Masud. “And it’s going to definitely be big for consumers, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be big for B2B.”

In effect, the larger the still-nascent world of conversational commerce becomes, the more opportunities there will be to find consumers.

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