Why Brands Need to Start Bringing People Back Into the Shopping Process
By Maria Tikhonova, COO and Brand relations Lead, eyezon
I recently got in a bit of trouble at any commerce conference by saying that personalization isn’t really about understanding people. Not to get too philosophical but in the past 20 years, the industry has spent an inordinate amount of time and money gathering data and using it to provide better, more “personalised” experiences for its customers.
The problem is that these companies develop algorithms not to gain a deep understanding of people but to motivate them to do things (or to be technically correct, to predict what they will do). On e-commerce sites, these involve what are known as “buying actions,” or steps along the path to purchase. On social networks, they are designed to improve engagement metrics, getting people to spend more time and energy on a site. In fact, whenever we go online, we are pushed and prodded by algorithms to the next video, the next product and the next big (or in most cases little) thing. They are “personalized” but that is not the same thing as saying they understand us.
This has some interesting implications for brands. The biggest one is that if every brand is moving people along these purchasing paths, none of them are creating a differentiated experience. As everyone has raced forward with digital transformation, they have found themselves providing the same, algorithmically driven experience, with the same purpose, albeit with slightly different products.
There is, however, one way in which all brands can remain distinct and be actually personalised. It’s not in the virtually identical technology they employ to motivate people, but in the real people who stand behind any brand. It’s these people and the intimate, intelligent and responsive interactions they can provide that can make a brand stand out.
Traditional commerce was never built on algorithms; it was built on unique human relationships. Whether it was a neighborhood grocer or a specialised consultant at a skincare department inside a store, consumers and the people behind brands forged relationships over time that led to durable, trusted purchasing experiences.
Technology is bringing us full circle with this. A range of new technologies (or rather, capabilities) make it easy to bypass the algorithms and connect humans with humans. In the workplace, we have Zoom and its competitors. At school, we have Google Classroom. When it comes to commerce, we also have services that can quickly connect shoppers to live agents, whether through chat, video or even, less satisfyingly, through AI. This new type of “live commerce” enables the retailer to reintroduce humanity and push the more stilted, technology-enabled purchasing journeys to the side.
Live agents offer a number of obvious differences and advantages over algorithmic experiences:
Individuals come to e-commerce with their own mental needs, anxieties, personalities and states of mind. It’s important to be able to meet them where they are and establish that kind of connection through a sympathetic human who can ensure that the purchase is the right one.
They Can Quickly Identify Individual Needs.
One of the big weaknesses of algorithms is that they are based on segments or groupings of people, sorted according to their behaviours. While segmentation can create efficiencies, the segments themselves generally need to be fairly large to make business sense. As a result, consumers are sorted into generic groups, which makes for a pushy and impersonal experience.
But people are quirky. They all have unique fears, hopes and idiosyncrasies and nothing is better at figuring them out than another person. A shopper may have a physical impairment that does not fit into a specific category or a phobia that doesn’t permit them to purchase things for perfectly random reasons. Such restrictions are generally impossible to identify through data and unprofitable to segment but are easily uncovered by human agents and can be mediated through them for better experiences.
They Can Naturally Cross and Upsell.
One of the biggest weaknesses of e-commerce platforms is their ability to cross and upsell. This is simply a function of real estate: with only so much space on a page and limited attention from our eyes, there’s no easy way for an e-commerce site to say, “Oh, I have something you really should look out before buying this.” Human beings are naturally conversational in a way that digitally transformed commerce is not.
Of course, these are just a few ways in which live agents can take us out of the debilitating quest for better algorithms. They are sensitive, variable and can be trained to respond to nearly any set of needs and conditions — or exactly what retailers have been doing with their salespeople for centuries. Brands that recognise this and act on it will be able to break free of the commoditized e-commerce world and learn to be different in the best way possible: by being human.