Prior to COVID-19, when social distancing was a misnomer in a connected world, we all preferred to visit brick and mortar stores to choose our best attaire and stock up the groceries for the week. In person service made us happy and customer experience drove the retail and CPG industry. With the pandemic, life has come to a hault. Overnight, the in-person interface and related processes have transitioned to digital.
Businesses are facing unique financial and operational challenges, never thought of before. There are changes in cultural norms, business practices and consumer behavior. This requires a big change in the way:
- Businesses work in terms of distribution, reporting and branding for efficient go-to-market strategies and;
- Consumer behavior in terms of shopping preferences, timelines and channels
The new normal has carved MANUAL OUT and DIGITAL IN even for the fence sitters. Businesses are now taking a leap of faith to adopt innovative business practices and models. These adhere to social distancing, ensure decreased manual intervention and help in knowing your customer better.
One of the key aspects of DIGITAL IN has been an increased need for digital assistants for consumers and producers alike. Artificial Intelligence (AI) assistants are now intelligent-independent voices that can find options for users (consumers and businesses), based on their actions, requirements and preferences. This is largely allowing users to use these assistants in a way like never before:
- Businesses are using it to monitor the complete value chain on-the-go
- For consumers, AI assistants are facilitating decision-making through product, comparisions, availability and swift delivery.
However, to examine these use cases, it is imperative to understand how digital assistants (hardware devices) facilitate the use of conversational AI to deliver what the user wants.
AI Assistants: A Tool for Convenience
An estimated 100 million Alexa-enabled devices were sold by Amazon in 2019, and Amazon is not the only player in the voice-activated assistants market. In January 2019, Google declared that Google Assistant will cross the one billion mark, with active users growing four times over the past one year. In June 2020, company rolled out the Voice Match feature that allows the Assistant to tell which member of a household is speaking to the device, to personalize responses. Tech-savvy consumers are using these tools for convenience and safety in the current times, and CPG companies are re-designing their products and marketing strategies to tap into new channels of interacting with customers.
Grappling with a pandemic, businesses are tilling the holy grail of customer service to understand the post COVID-19 challenges and deliver to their customers a more compelling brand- a brand that listens to them much more than ever before.
The chatbot market is projected to grow to $9.4 billion by 2024, as they reduce operatational costs for enterprises. With a pandemic at our doorstep, these figures are likely to scale further. CPGs’ trade fund investments in pre-covid times showcased an interesting inference of CPG being omnipresent. CPGs invested more than $500 billion annually in trade funds. This fund kitty was used not only for the offline mediums, but a huge portion was invested in online mediums through direct to customer promotions using the medium of voice (digital assistants).
With more consumers buying goods online, these mediums are bound to witness a sudden and unexpected growth. However, to understand what may emerge out of this in a post-COVID world, we need to look at existing commitments to-AI assisted sales across CPGs:
- Unilever has been using voice channels for items under their Hellmann brand to ask consumers about their preferred cuisines and is offering products customized to their tastes & moods. Customers are also provided with the option of ordering related raw materials, delivered to their doorstep.
- Personal care and beauty products company Sephora has been assisting its consumers to find specific shades simply by uploading a photo through visual-assisted AI. This is done using facial analysis and visualization technology.
- Johnnie Walker helps whisky aficionados in brushing up their knowledge about the drink and finding the right blend for them using Alexa. This, in addition to the Facebook Messenger bot that can direct consumers to purchase their favorite blend and even guide them on mixing a cocktail.
- Nestle is helping its customers find bioactive peptides in the food to boost health or treat a specific disease using AI through tailoring food products. They generated 8% of their sales from DTC channel in 2017.
All the above use cases are examples of how a segment of consumers is already getting used to the new normal.
Looking at the above examples, one might sense that the major focus of AI-assisted chatbots has been in the consumer engagement and marketing domain. This, however, is only the half-truth. Much remains to be explored in various domains related to value chain and usage possibilities, especially in post-COVID times, when the business processes need to be less manual and more automated.
We, at Mindtree, have been developing & deploying solutions for:
- Sourcing the right products: An AI tool that assists the procurement team for supplier onboarding through recommendations based on the requirements of the product development team
- Automated manufacturing batch job planning by providing details over voice for the expected demand, current capacity and job order status. The AI tool extrapolates information from product status, allocation distribution data etc. to give more or less accurate real-time data feed.
- Automated store fulfilment by enabling a combined image and voice-based ordering that ensures inventory balance or transfer to the point of consumption.
- Mindtree’s executive team can now get live updates on KPIs on an ad hoc basis using conversational BI capabilities.
We understand the importance of end-to-end business focus for evolving into a One-Organization. Hence, we have developed the below value chain analysis of using AI for bigger business impact. This is complementary to the business need of NOW as there is an increased need for optimum utilisation of resources with no disruptions to the supply chain.
The usage possibilities are in plenty and for this to be completely understood, the first step is onboarding, i.e. integrating the brand with multiple voice-enabled platforms. It is a holistic process which would involve a focus on:
- Business to Consumer (B2C), the prime focus area with customer engagement as the key driver.
- Business to Enterprise (B2E), the secondary focus with conversational BI tools for all employees from executive management to factory leads.
- Business to Business (B2B), currently least focused and hence with most opportunities.
We are at the cusp of AI and collaborating with each other to cater to the new normal. Especially with the ever growing bandwagon of devices like Amazon Alexa through Echo, Google Assistant through Google Home and Pixel phones, Apple Siri through HomePod, Microsoft’s Cortana and Samsung’s acquisition of Viv (an intelligent assistant company founded by Siri’s creators) to advance its Bixby AI assistant platform.
We predict that the curves will converge for the better and the challenges observed will diminish as we transition to the next phase. However, knowing the present and immediate future, the focus needs to be on delivering value which enables all stakeholders to do their work effectively and efficiently in any situation. What remains to be seen is the next stage of evolution for advanced use case implementations using AI and how it can evolve.
We, at Mindtree, have already developed concepts for a majority of the use cases mentioned above and as you read this, we may have new ones which we see as good value-adds. All you need to do is get in touch with us to understand your potential. Welcome to possible.