With gyms and many sporting activities shut down in the first 2019 phase of COVID-19, many UK residents turned to home gyms and outdoor activities. That was good news for sportswear and equipment brands, but also meant a huge rise in orders on e-commerce sites.
One company that says its customer service team needed advanced tech to cope with the resulting influx of e-commerce orders, customer questions and service requests is the UK division of French multinational, Decathlon. It had to cope with, among other things, a 4.5x increase in in-bound Facebook Messenger requests in just the March to May 2020 period alone.
One way the team says has proved highly effective to cope with more inquiries without impairing customer experience is an AI-powered customer messaging platform. This has enabled better personalized customer experiences through one-on-one conversations on social and messaging apps, says its UK customer loyalty Team Lead Charles Guth.
Founded in 1976 in France, Decathlon is a family-owned sporting goods company which has over 2,000 bricks-and-mortar stores and 100,000 employees worldwide.
Decathlon UK opened its first store in Surrey Quays, London, in 1999, and has grown to 48 stores in the UK. Decathlon was already a user of the Hootsuite social media and marketing suite. This was extended during the pandemic to include adoption of a program called Heyday to build a digital assistant to create conversational flows that could answer frequent customer questions about order tracking, product returns, store locations and hours, product searches and technical support.
We wanted to build a conversational AI (Artificial Intelligence) assistant integrated in Messenger to provide an ‘always-on' option for customers to get quick answers to simple queries. At the same time, we wanted that conversational assistant to be consistent in tone and style with the overall brand.
The assistant - DECA - also uses Natural Language Understanding to detect over 1,000 unique customer intentions. This means it can respond with automated answers to sporting-goods related questions. One of the earliest uses of conversational AI was the company's responses to COVID-related customer questions.
Government guidelines and restrictions were changing quite regularly, but common customer queries about what stores might be open and the nearest possible location, their opening and closing times, whether click and collect was available, could all be answered immediately by Decathlon's digital assistant.
Since that information was being updated almost in real time, customers could get the answers they needed, right away. Some 65% of customer inquiries were already automated for the new Messenger customer case channel on launch. A ‘handover' solution to allow customers to switch seamlessly to interacting with a live customer service agent for more complicated or sensitive issues was built-in from the start.
Some 96% of customers are claimed to describe themselves as "very satisfied" with the AI-enhanced Messenger experience compared to 79% prior to its introduction. Implementing the digital assistant via Messenger also saw a 175% increase in number of people communicating with Decathlon UK via this channel, a 55% increase in the number of queries resolved through the automated experience, a 25% increase in agent productivity in the first six months of introduction due to more manageable workloads through automation.
These benefits also came at the welcome addition of a 25% decrease in support costs. Overall quality is also improved, the brand believes. Guth says:
We're really proud of the work our customer services teams are able to do now that they aren't bogged down answering redundant, non-value-added questions.
Moving to majority Messenger messaging
Guth outlined the situation prior to the introduction of conversational AI. The company's customer service team handled "a little of everything" - emails, phone, live chat. Now, Decathlon UK can give "more power to our customers to get the answers they need autonomously".
An architecture dedicated to product information, where customers can ask the chatbot questions about a product, is now live, integrated with specialist Hootsuite tools to expand the range of services available via Messenger. These include, for example, a feature allowing customer care agents to curate personalized shopping carts for customers and share with them via a DM.
The shift by customers to a social channel seems permanent now, too. Between July and September 2021, DECA handled more than 45,000 customer conversations for more than 34,000 unique users. A majority - 61% - of all Decathlon UK customer conversations took place on Messenger during the same period. Guth adds:
The speed of adoption of our digital assistant has been remarkable. Consumers are certainly ready to embrace new technologies.
The project's success has also opened up, he said, an opportunity to build internal Decathlon teams of experts on the different tools. The aim here is to maximize the potential of the brand's customer service function.
We have created different teams for our live channels - Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram - and now have different teams that work exclusively on a given channel.
This specialization has been great for team efficiency, and great for our customers. And in addition to transforming customer service, this software has helped us take customer experience to the next level by facilitating e-commerce sales through the messaging platform.
Enhanced team productivity and performance
Summing up his experience of this new approach to online customer support, Guth says:
Implementing a conversational AI platform has put the power in the customer's hands and enabled our customer service teams to provide more expert advice than ever before, and at the same time, offer more options to customers that enhance their e-commerce experience.
This project shows we've been able to provide the right mix of useful conversational AI and digital features that enhance our customer service teams' productivity and performance.