Sci-fi writers rocket Lowe’s customer service into the 21st century
Wednesday, March 02, 2016
In the last two years, customer satisfaction has declined across all retail sectors, according to a new report by ACSI. Satisfaction was highest after the Great Recession when companies were doing practically anything to win back customers. Now that retailers have regained their footing, they are increasing prices again and spending less time and effort on winning customers as they focus on planning ahead.
So, how can retailers look to the future while also pleasing their customers in the present? They must decide on updates and improvements that will have secondary effects of increased customer satisfaction. For inspiration, let's look at Lowe's Companies Inc.
In 2014, the company created Lowe's Innovation Labs (LIL), which was designed "to bring together uncommon partners with a commitment to get technology out of the lab and into the real world," according to e27. The executive director of LIL, Kyle Nel, "hired a team of science-fiction writers, asked them to envision the future of home improvement, and then turned their ideas into a comic book. He brought the book to a meeting of the retailer's senior executives and asked them to read through it."
It might seem like a practical joke to many, but the execs loved it, and that’s where it all began.
Robots to the rescue
Anyone who has been inside a hardware store knows how overwhelming it can be — aisles that could be considered mazes, shelves so high you need binoculars to see what's on top, and so many product options that it’s hard to differentiate. On top of that, when you need assistance, the only customer service rep you can find has a line of people following behind, waiting for their turn to talk to the rep.
You typically have two options: wait in line or continue searching alone for that needle in the haystack. But Lowe's is introducing a third option: a robot created to transform customer service.
Several retailers are testing robots' capabilities and seeing positive results, including Best Buy and Amazon. However, the Lowe's robot has the most in-depth customer interaction, and the concept is proving successful through the anticipated expansion to more locations.
Lowe's has been testing its robot at Orchard Supply Hardware in San Jose, California. Called OSHbot, the 5-foot-tall robot specializes in customer service.
When a customer approaches, facial-recognition technology identifies the customer as a human, and OSHbot introduces itself. Then, according to Fast Company, OSHbot's customer service begins: "I can help you find things in the store. What are you looking for?"
The customer states what he is looking for, and a list of potential products appears on OSHbot's screen. The customer selects the product he is searching for, then a map appears detailing the customer's location, the location of the desired product and the route to get to the product. OSHbot guides the customer to the location.
While the ability to inform and guide customers is beneficial, these services are not unique to retail robots and the OSHbot. Human customer service reps have the same job description. However, retail robots' abilities do not stop there.
OSHbot currently speaks seven languages, tracks inventory, sends inventory alerts, spots trends based on data and inquiries, and has the potential for much more. Retail robots can improve customer service as well as increase company revenue and profits through improved processes, functions, time management, data storage and analysis, and decreased losses.
OSHbot also has the ability to guide you to Lowe's next innovation: the Holoroom.
Virtual reality will increase customer confidence
Basic customer service is vital to all retailers. However, Lowe's — and the home improvement retail industry in general — must extend that customer service by helping customers design and envision their home improvement project. Most customers will not spend thousands of dollars on home improvement if they can't envision it, but getting customers to imagine your design, plan or concept doesn't always work.
To accommodate these customers, Lowe's created the Holoroom — a virtual-reality room where your design comes to life.
"Using an iPad app, customers can design a kitchen or bathroom, placing cabinets, picking colors, even moving windows," according to ZDNet. The customer can view the 3-D virtual-reality depiction with a 360-degree view. If the customer is satisfied, the design can be uploaded to YouTube and viewed by others.
The more confident the customer is in the product, the higher the probability of purchase. Seeing a 3-D, 360-degree visualization of the project and design provides customers with unparalleled confidence.
Lowe's Holoroom also brings the customer into the store instead of designing and purchasing online. This gives Lowe's the opportunity to increase transaction amounts through upselling — and impulse purchases placed strategically throughout the store.
In addition to adopting technologies to increase customer satisfaction, Lowe's has added one more technological upgrade to their list that is truly a first for the industry — an outer space location.
3-D printing brings home improvement to space
Lowe's innovators, in partnership with Made in Space, have created a way to expand their products and services to outer space — in the form of a 3-D printer. The concept is simple: Send a 3-D printer to the International Space Station so astronauts can print parts and tools to fix or upgrade their "home."
While this innovation won't affect the regular Lowe's customer or improve customer satisfaction, it is a huge step toward the future. The ability to send the 3-D printer to space and test its effectiveness and reliability could pave the way to 3-D printers being commonplace in all retailers — or the home.
"Our presence in space is a manifestation of our partnership to develop this technology for Earth," according to Made in Space in a National Retail Federation article.
Sometimes retailers shouldn't focus on upgrading an existing product or service, they should focus on creating something new — something the competition hasn't thought of. Just like Lowe's employed sci-fi writers, maybe it's time to consider the unexpected.
What's next? A mall on Mars? A department store under the sea?
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