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Dreamforce 2023 - Williams Sonoma CEO Laura Alber warns there can be nothing artificial about AI when used to enhance customer experience

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 12, 2023
AI can be used to help retailers enhance customer experience, but there needs to be truth and trust in what you do, says Alber.

Benioff and Alber at Dreamforce

Iconic US retailer Williams Sonoma has been at the forefront of effective omni-channel transformation for many years - as we’ve tracked on a regular basis. While rivals such as Wayfair have struggled and Bed, Bath & Beyond went into liquidation, Williams Sonoma’s ‘digital first, but not digital only’ business model has paid off.

The company’s various brands - Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, Pottery Barn Teen, West Elm, Williams Sonoma Home, Rejuvenation, Mark and Graham and GreenRow — sell through a combination of e-commerce websites, direct-mail catalogs and physical retail stores, an omni-channel balance that has eluded all too many retailers.

The firm has its own proprietary e-commerce stack that has served it well and which the retailer is now looking to enhance with AI as part of its tech capabilities. To that end, the firm today announced that it’s been working with Salesforce to marry its own internally-developed tech with Salesforce’s cloud and AI offerings.

This includes using Data Cloud and Marketing Cloud to create a unified view of customers across all of its brands and improve customer engagement. The intention here is to explore the potential of Salesforce Einstein’s generative AI capabilities to deliver ever more personalized communications with buyers. The firm is working with Salesforce to figure out how to integrate its own AI capabilities into its marketing program to take that to the next level.

Away from B2C, the retailer is also streamlining its B2B sales process with Sales Cloud and Service Cloud, allowing B2B customers like hotels, restaurants, and resorts, to order in bulk with ease. Growing the B2B side of the business has long been a stated priority for Williams Sonoma.

In addition, the company makes use of the AI-driven search capabilities of Slack to assist in streamlining collaboration among the internal IT team.

As CEO Laura Alber, who also sits on the Salesforce board of directors, sums it up:

AI helps our teams make more informed decisions, it creates efficiencies within our business, and it allows us to be agile as we connect with millions of our customers around the world on a daily basis.

AI futures

It’s clear that there’s a great deal of thinking going on at Williams Sonoma about the potential ups - and downs - of the generative AI movement. Speaking at Dreamforce today, Alber commented:

As much as things change, they stay the same. Service is still the most important thing that we do. What's exciting about the future is this new technology. It's really going to be able to help us serve our customers better and inspire them more than we are able to today.

There's so many life stages when things change and when you come upon those big times in your life where you need to buy a new house and furniture, move to a new apartment, or downsize, or bring a baby into your life [and] you need a lot of help. Imagine if we can use the collective information from other people, who were in your situation, to better serve you. And it's not just about the selling. It's also about supply chain and how you can optimize costs and how you can better deliver that to you?

In keeping with the theme of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s keynote, Alber picked up on the importance of trust:

What does trust mean and what breaks trust? When you think about things and people that you trust, they are reliable, they are helpful, and they do no harm. So when you think about brands that are going to win with AI, they have to really add value to the customers. They have to serve them better than they did before. The last thing you want them to do is to hurt the customer experience.

That last point brought up the most interesting idea that Alber articulated, one that has implications that reach far beyond her own company or indeed the retail sector as a whole:

The truth is that when it comes to customers, there can be nothing artificial about the experience. So as we use AI, and we use it to inspire and improve the experience, we need to make sure that it's completely authentic. So I wonder about a name change to AI. I wonder if it's just to be called intelligence or data intelligence. I think we should stop thinking about the definition as artificial when it comes to the customer.

Overall, it's clear that AI is going to be major part of that 'digital first, not digital only' strategic thinking moving foward: 

What we're seeing is that AI serves us in many different places, not  just the obvious ones [like] marketing and sales, but also supply chain, return logistics and all those things that add up to making the customer experience really, really wonderful all the way from the beginning.

For all the highlights from Dreamforce 2023, check out our dedicated events hub here.

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