Computers Teach Humans To Be More Human

The Wall Street Journal: “Can a computer program make humans more human? That’s the goal of new software aimed at making call-center agents better at their jobs by assessing performance on phone etiquette and social skills like empathy and patience … Cogito is one of several companies developing analytics tools that give agents feedback about how conversations with customers are going.”

“Its software measures in real time the tone of an agent’s voice, their speech rate, and how much each person is talking … That dance is sometimes out of sync, such as when an agent speaks too quickly or too much, cuts a customer off, has extended periods of silence or sounds tired … When the software detects these mistakes, a notification pops up on a window on an agent’s screen to coax them to change their strategy.”

“These tools don’t understand every nuance of what a person says—which, for now, might assuage privacy concerns about companies listening in on conversations and analyzing that data.”

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Chick-Fil-A: The Harvard of Fast Food

The Washington Post: “Carrie Kurlander, vice president of public relations for Chick-fil-A, said the Georgia-based chain receives more than 40,000 inquires per year from people interested in becoming restaurant operators (the company’s term for ‘franchisee’). After filling out an initial “expression of interest” online, they complete a formal, written application. From there, the company conducts recorded live-video and in-person interviews with applicants, taking business experience and leadership skills into consideration.”

“The chain opens 100 to 115 new restaurants a year, Kurlander said, and operators typically run one restaurant each. The company runs more than 2,200 restaurants in 47 states, and the average restaurant makes more than $4 million in annual sales. Again: that’s 40,000 people who hope to become operators, and about 100 to 115 who make it through. To compare, of Harvard’s 42,749 applicants for the school’s incoming freshman class, it admitted 1,962.”

Kurlander comments: “We are very intentional with our selection process as we believe this model is the key to ensuring our customers receive the best care and experience possible.”

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Sam’s Club, Walmart & Parental Pricing Supervision

Business Insider: “Sam’s Club, which is owned by Walmart, has for years told customers in stores and on social media that it won’t match Walmart’s prices, or any competitor’s prices … This is highly frustrating for customers like Craig Barnes, a Sam’s Club member for more than two decades, who said the warehouse chain should at least match the prices of its parent company if it’s charging members fees to shop there.”

“Barnes was recently shopping for a copper grill mat at his local Sam’s Club store in Torrance, California, and discovered that the price, at $8.98, was 11% higher than at Walmart. He also found that a Kumho car tire cost $84.66 at Sam’s, and $73.17 at Walmart.”

When Business Insider contacted Sam’s Club about these complaints, the company said that the price-matching policy needed clarification’.” Spokespersona Carrie McKnight “said Sam’s Club doesn’t have a specific policy enforcing price-matching, but that it empowers its store managers to use their best judgment in providing refunds or price-matching on certain items. For identical items carried at both Walmart and Sam’s Club, the club chain should match prices, she said … If customers are denied price matching on identical items by their local club, they should contact customer service or reach out to Sam’s Club on social media to resolve the matter, she said.”

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Waiting in Line: There’s No App For That

The Wall Street Journal: “Every day, Mitchell Burton orders and pays for an Italian B.M.T. sandwich on his Subway mobile app, so the sandwich is waiting at the counter. When he arrives, the 32-year-old Baton Rouge, La., parks and recreation worker frequently heads to the back of the line, to avoid seeming rude to less tech-savvy fellow customers. Line skippers sometimes ‘get the stink eye,’ he says, because fellow patrons don’t understand that there’s an app to order ahead.”

“Various ways to skip lines have gained momentum in recent years, as businesses ranging from retailers to movie theaters have come up with ways for customers to avoid a wait, often with mobile apps and ordering kiosks … In theory, order-ahead technology should appeal to everyone.” But: “Some line lovers say technology gets in the way of the personal touch. That’s why Al DiSalvatore sometimes puts his phone down and lines up the old fashioned way at coffee shops in Philadelphia. He likes when the baristas remember his name and order—something that reminds him of his time living in smaller cities.”

“Lining up is part of a gauzy nostalgia for the days before smartphones, which also includes professors banning laptops in class, people stopping at the register to write checks and shoppers skipping shopping online … Erik Fairleigh, 38, who works in communications at Amazon, also has a simple reason for sometimes joining the line. ‘I like to pay in cash,’ he says … Ashleigh Azzaria, a 34-year-old Palo Alto, Calif., event designer, typically chooses to wait in line for coffee at Starbucks, even though she has the mobile app installed and skips the line for bigger orders. ‘It’s my break,’ she says. ‘It’s my time to just kind of decompress, to not be on the phone’.”

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The Color of Money: Bias & The Brand Experience

Alexandra C. Feldberg and Tami Kim: “Over the past two years, we have investigated discrimination in customer service by conducting large-scale field experiments in the hospitality industry. We have repeatedly found that front-line workers exhibit racial bias in the quality of customer service they provide. In one experiment, we emailed approximately 6,000 hotels across the United States from 12 fictitious email accounts. We varied the names of the senders to signal different attributes, such as race and gender, to the recipients.”

“Overall, hotel employees were significantly more likely to respond to inquiries from people who had typically white names than from those who had typically black and Asian names … Hotel employees provided 20 percent more restaurant recommendations to white than to black or Asian people. Employees’ politeness also varied by race. When responding to white people, employees were more likely to address them by name and to end their emails with a complimentary close (e.g., “Best,” “Sincerely”) than they were when responding to black or Asian people.”

“Instead of relying primarily on trainings to remedy bias, if they truly want to transform the way they serve customers, companies need to make structural changes. For instance, they should standardize scripts and provide employees with specific protocols for managing these situations. Such efforts can institutionalize norms of behavior for employees when they interact with customers … To detect bias in these behaviors requires quantifying different aspects of customer service and comparing treatment quality across a range of customers … It is only after identifying these disparities that companies can develop targeted interventions to combat biases.”

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Wearhouse Hero: Boosting App-arel Sales

The Wall Street Journal: “Like many traditional chains, Men’s Wearhouse has had better luck converting store visits into sales than it has with shoppers browsing its website. Executives say they are turning to new technology created by a startup called Hero in hopes of improving results while still using the company’s existing workforce. Over the holiday shopping season, the company tested out the app in about 100 stores. It found that online shoppers were more likely to buy an item after chatting with a store worker, prompting an expedited rollout to the company’s remaining stores.”

“By September, more than 3,000 workers across both Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A Bank will be able to chat with online shoppers. The employees can wave their phones over product tags to generate web links to purchase the items and set up appointments through the app … The app connects an online customer with an available salesperson in the nearest store. To ensure that employees don’t become too pushy, it lets shoppers rate them, much in the same way an Uber passenger rates a driver. The video chat is one-way: Shoppers see into the store, but workers can’t see the customers.”

“Alistair Crane, the CEO of Hero, said his technology is built on the fact that store workers were already texting customers and using social media sites, like Instagram, to showcase products.”

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Boyd’s: Retail’s Past as Prologue?

The New York Times: “Like the Liberty Bell and the stone Rocky Steps, Boyds is a Philadelphia landmark, and one equally impervious to the shifting seasons. For 80 years, the family-owned business has outfitted lawyers, bankers, doctors, politicians and famous athletes … The store is where a young man goes to buy his wedding suit, and returns 30 years later, grayer, wealthier, thicker in the middle, this time bringing his son to buy his wedding suit … in this age of dressing down and click-and-buy, in an environment where the big chains have killed off the mom-and-pops and Amazon is killing off the chains, Boyds now feels like a shopping experience out of time … Out-of-towners who happen into this retail anachronism tend to react first with astonishment, followed by a sigh of pleasure.”

“It’s very possible that Boyds isn’t just one of a dying breed of old-fashioned retailers, however. Given its scale (50,000 square feet of selling space over four floors), and the level of service it provides, and the tailor shop and complimentary parking lot, and the near century of independent operation by the same family, it may be the only clothing store of its kind anywhere in the country … To understand how Boyds has avoided oblivion thus far, it’s instructive to spend an afternoon on the selling floors … The operation has a choreographed precision. Chris Phillips, the 43-year-old men’s tailored clothing manager, on this day stood near the elevator. It was his job to greet customers, determine their needs and spin them to the right salesperson.”

“Generally speaking, the men who come to Boyds aren’t there to browse. Overscheduled high earners, they view clothes shopping as one more task to be efficiently completed, an attitude to which every Boyds employee is attuned … Marc Brownstein, the president and chief executive of the Brownstein Group … dates his first Boyds shopping trip to high school, back in the ’80s, and now especially appreciates its delivery service to home or office, and the text messages he gets from the store when a brand is going on sale.” He comments: “The family just outthinks other retailers. They’ll deliver to your house, to your office. You park for free. You know what parking costs in the center of Philadelphia? They’re going to outwork and out-service everyone else.”

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Take a Chance or Fly Air France

The New York Times: “You open what looks like an in-flight care package to find 50 feet of Sudoku puzzles on a tapelike roll, Champagne-flavored gummy candies and a scratch-and-sniff patch that smells like boeuf bourguignon. In a time of low-cost airlines, where your ticket might not include an edible hot meal or free access to electronic entertainment, the box reminds you of what could be if you shell out a little more on Air France. That’s the idea behind the airline’s new ‘Take a Chance or Fly Air France’ campaign, which will begin showing up in American digital ad space this week.”

Dominique Wood, Air France’s executive vice president of brand and communication, comments: “We want to remind our clients and our future clients that there is another way to travel, even in economy, where everything is included. You’ve got a very comfortable seat, you’ve got a hot meal and a full complement of entertainment, and if you can have it — if you’re the right age — a glass of French Champagne.”

“The Air France campaign will mostly be a digital one, but visitors to the Grove mall in Los Angeles on Saturday can win pairs of round-trip economy tickets. The Sudoku puzzle tape, gummies and scratch-and-sniff patches will also be given away, and will be available in an online sweepstakes.” Henry Harteveldt, the founder of Atmosphere Research Group, comments: “As airlines have unbundled their product, they almost don’t want to remind you of what it’s like to fly them. What Air France is doing is a smart marketing move, but it’s also a brave marketing move.”

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Apple Stores: The DMV of Retail?

Business Insider: “Apple Stores have become an almost mythical part of the tech giant’s brand. Now, they could be killing it … if you’ve visited an Apple Store recently, you may have found that you weren’t visiting a magical tech utopia after all. Many customers are now comparing their Apple Store experiences to those they’ve had at a different place: the dreaded DMV.”

“Customers’ top complaints are focused on crowds and wait times, which can last for hours. Simply put, too many people need assistance at Apple Stores — and employees don’t have the time to help everyone immediately … Irritated customers tired of waiting for simple assistance tend to be less than impressed by Apple Stores’ unique design. Some say they feel Apple has prioritized artistry over customers’ needs.”

“In 2016, Apple retail boss Angela Ahrendts told Business Insider that the company needed ‘to open incredible places that almost behave like a town square, like a gathering place’ … For some, Apple Stores have become a site of frustration, not community mingling. However, the company is renovating dozens of stores across the US in an effort to better achieve its ‘town square’ goals. These revamped stores are larger, which could help with concerns of overcrowding. They also feature a new approach to the Genius Bar with the ‘Genius Grove,’ which allows a section of the store to be focused on repairs and assistance without involving lines.”

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Retail Equation: Returns from Hell

The Wall Street Journal: “Every time shoppers return purchases to Best Buy Co. they are tracked by a company that has the power to override the store’s touted policy and refuse to refund their money. That is because the electronics giant is one of several chains that have hired a service called Retail Equation to score customers’ shopping behavior and impose limits on the amount of merchandise they can return.”

“When a consumer makes a return, details about his or her identity and shopping visit are transmitted to Retail Equation, which then generates a ‘risk score.’ If the score exceeds the threshold specific to the retailer, a salesperson informs the consumer that future returns will be denied and then directs them to Retail Equation to request a return activity report or file a dispute.”

“It isn’t easy for shoppers to learn their standing before receiving a warning. Retailers typically don’t publicize their relationship with Retail Equation. And even if a customer tracks down his or her return report, it doesn’t include purchase history or other information used to generate a score. The report also doesn’t disclose the actual score or the thresholds for getting barred.”

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