Second only to Mother’s Day (and Elvis’ death) Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest days of the year for 1-800-Flowers. The period around February 14 accounts for roughly 9-10% of the brand’s annual sales and CMO Amit Shah compares it to the Super Bowl. And like Super Bowl advertisers, he’s going all out.
An early adopter by nature, 1-800-Flowers was one of the first retailers to use a toll-free number and make sales via chatbots. In the past, the brand has also offered customers the assistance of GWYN, an artificial intelligence-powered virtual gift concierge whose name stands for Gifts When You Need. Powered by IBM Watson, GWYN asked customers questions to guide them toward the perfect gift.
That’s just the beginning. We spoke to Shah about how 1-800-Flowers is using AI this Valentine’s Day. Read on to see how voice factors in and why the lack of visuals isn’t actually a detractor, and the importance of a learning quotient.
Amit Shah: On our telephone system, we push customers down a pathway to trained agents. They understand, say, sympathy and know the appropriate sizes for sending flowers to a funeral home. And then on our core chat-based platform, we are working on capturing that information so we can train the models. It’s not about just using AI, but training it. It has to be realistic. If it’s too hyper-made to be a certain way, like this all-encompassing knowledge base, I think it gets away from the essential human connection with a brand. We want to complement, rather than replace, humans.
With emerging technology, we try to focus on what the real use case is for the customer. We have a feature on our website, Smart Gift, where it uses AI to figure out the recipient’s address. You can go to our gifting page and send someone a gift even if you only have their phone number. With all this technology, we are trying to take the aspect of the customer journey and provide a faster way wherever there’s friction.
AS: Like a Facebook relationship status, it’s complicated. Our job is to determine the correct starting point as our customers adopt these technologies. You can go out and copy and experience on a webpage, looking at someone else’s, seeing the shopping cart on the top right and recreating that. But chatbots and voice are, by definition, customized journeys. For example, we know that in our voice chatbot, there’s a statistical difference in our customer satisfaction between saying hello and hi. At the point of transaction, you’re looking for credibility. But if someone casually says, “Hi, Mike,” you don’t see the gravitas.
Between smartphones, Alexa and Google Assistant, voice is becoming more and more ubiquitous and the machine learning algorithms that power speech are getting smarter. It always amazes me that my 7-year-old daughter — she was born here and has a very different accent than I do — and I can both speak to an intelligent voice system and it understands both of us. When customers called 1-800-Flowers years ago, the medium was voice, but it was a human’s voice. Now it seems like we’re at the nascent stage where the adoption isn’t just functional; it’s getting to a delightful phase.
AS: For 1-800-Flowers customers, it’s not about the visual presentation. It’s more about the presentation of the expression they’re trying to send. Our 800 number has no visual medium, either; in the voice response, they’re looking for curation and expert concierge help. We have a lot of customers who come to us for sympathy needs. They want someone who understands what might be appropriate for the recipient. That you generally send fruit to Jewish people sitting shiva, for example. Voice is actually advantageous for us because it cuts through the clutter of seeing 50 different things.
AS: There are two kinds of invocations: explicit and implicit. The explicit invocation is saying, “Alexa, I’m looking for 1-800-Flowers. If it’s implicit, you say, “Alexa, I want to send someone flowers.” Every brand has to figure out how to optimize explicit versus implicit. It’s a very different data density to think about what you get from an online visitor. The ability of brands to personalize the 1:1 customer journey — looking for 1-800-Flowers or just gifts in general — is going to be differentiated with voice commerce.
AS: What do our customers find interesting? We’re most excited about the learning potential. I tell people when I started my career at McKinsey, I used to hire the smartest people. Ten years later, I started looking for emotional intelligence, as well. The last few years, I’ve hired people for their LQ: learning quotient. Think about AI and all these new technologies based on machine learning. The same way our customers are increasing their investment in learning new technology, we as a brand have to keep on learning.
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