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August 28, 2019
Scaling the consultative sales experience with a human+ sales associate
By: Robert Dooley and Alex Kass

In a great buying experience, conversations and experiences combine to help customers feel knowledgeable and secure in their purchases. You can imagine such an experience at a high-end boutique: You need an outfit for a special event. You tell an associate about the event and what you envision for an outfit; she makes suggestions based on current styles, the details of the event, your size, your budget, and so on. You may try on a few things and give some feedback, at which point she’ll refine her recommendations until you find just what you need.

These consultative experiences are often rare when shopping in discount venues, though, where the most help you can expect is limited to getting a list of products available for purchase. Over the last year, we’ve been exploring how technology can start to bridge that gap.

“Human+ Expert Advice” brings three key elements of the consultative buying experience to a broader audience. The first is expertise: The customer connects directly or indirectly with a person, brand or other entity that has its own, distinct, expert point of view about the space. Second, the approach applies that expertise with an understanding of the customer’s context: where and when the products will be used as well as how products will be used together. Finally, it’s interactive: It articulates the reasoning behind its expert opinions and takes the customer’s feedback to refine that advice.

The human+ sales associate

Augmenting the abilities of novice sales associates will be a key role for technology to play in retail. With this approach, companies can transform physical stores. Rather than places buyers only go to pick up products, stores can become places shoppers go for consultation and community that lets them get what they truly want. In our work at Accenture Labs, we’re envisioning a future where AI systems help novice sales associates give advice like experts do. Retailers will finally be able to provide a consultative selling experience at scale.

This human+ sales associate will engage the customer in a human way, and translate between the customer’s vernacular and the expert vocabulary. But she doesn’t need to master the logic of an expert consultation; the associate handles the in-person interaction, and the AI component provides expert reasoning:

The human associate and customer talk…

…while the AI system analyzes their conversation.

The associate asks the customer questions…

…under the guidance of the AI system.

The associate makes expert suggestions…

…from suggestions that the system generates.

The customer gives feedback to the associate…

…and the AI responds with improved suggestions.

We built a demo of this augmented buying experience for the fashion domain. Per interviews with an expert fashion stylist, the expert model requires much more than just product attributes like color or material. Conversations with expert stylists often begin by focusing on how the client wants to feel when wearing an outfit. To drive the conversation in a similar way, AI systems need to be trained on how outfits map to more emotionally- and culturally-driven concepts like “grunge” and “classy.” Experts can supply example outfits and rules for the AI to follow, as well as the vocabulary for the human+ associate to use.

We can’t expect the AI to understand all the nuance of the customer’s wishes and context. That’s why we have the human associate ask follow-up questions and provide that feedback to the AI system. The AI doesn’t need to come up with a perfect answer; it just needs to get close enough for the human associate to fill in the gaps. Working together, they deliver an expert consultative experience.

Future possibilities

Expert Advice can provide richer, more helpful sales conversations in a scalable way. It will raise the typical buying experience to the level that is currently available only from high-end sellers. But enabling the human+ sales associate is just one of many ways we expect emerging technologies to transform the buying experience over the next several years.

Our teammates are currently mapping out the next wave of R&D to push the frontier even further. They’re combining immersive technologies, smart environments and social technologies, as well as AI, to create an experience that focuses less on making an individual sale and more on learning about the customer and solidifying the brand’s message. Companies will be able to engage customers deeply with education, entertainment and connection to communities with similar interests, to help them make buying decisions with confidence. Stay tuned for more from our group as we reimagine the future of retail!

For more information about Expert Advice, contact Robert Dooley and Alex Kass.

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