By Cristian Petschen - November 14, 2018
“In the future, businesses won’t just sell products and services, they’ll provide personalized solutions on a simple communication interface.”
This is what I have been saying across the country on stages like TechCrunch, Shop.org, and The Ascent Conference. It’s no secret that Amazon has spread like a virus across the map, wiping out retailers big and small, but the core problem is that retailers are trying to compete with the e-commerce giant on price, selection, and delivery speed: a game Amazon has already won. Sure, some people know what they want and they want it fast and cheap, but most of the time it’s more complicated, creating a huge opportunity for disruption.
As the same products and services are offered by Amazon and the like, and as customers are increasingly more sophisticated, retailers, car companies, banks, insurance companies, and other sellers of goods and services will have to step up their game and become solutions providers, at scale and across channels.
In order to survive and thrive in the new economy, retailers’ focus will have to shift from selling products to solving problems. Instead of helping people at the point of sale they will have to help people along the entire process. This means migrating from an e-commerce site, helpdesk app, chatbot, or call center to a collaboration and clienteling platform.
The fact is that, to the clients, most purchases are akin to projects they have to complete to solve a specific problem or need. For example, a couple looking for a Smart TV actually needs the best Smart TV they can afford, mounted on their wall, streaming their favorite show, and connected to everything. Whether shopping for a bedroom set, an engagement ring, or an outfit for an upcoming event, each client has a problem that needs to be solved. Customers currently need to tell their story many times while juggling different apps and services, turning to their friends, family, and colleagues through social media and messenger apps for help and advice. They often also need to leverage web and mobile apps, chat widgets, SMS, call centers, and brick-and-mortar stores to finish the job.
E-commerce sites follow the tradition of old fashioned catalogs where customers would sift through product images with tiny descriptions, fill out forms with SKUs and credit card information, and mail them via the postal service.
In essence, retailers just put the catalogs online. This product-centric approach doesn’t improve much by adding other disconnected apps and services to the process, it just makes things more complicated. Until the process is streamlined into a single, customer-centric and seamless experience, businesses will continue to lose market share to companies that specialize in price, selection, and delivery speed.
Let’s face it, the reality is that customers don’t want complications. They look for efficiency and ease of use. This explains why most professionals prefer to work on messenger-based collaboration applications like Slack and HipChat when tackling projects at work, creating channels to manage projects and tasks and pulling their colleagues in as needed, along the way. They just need to get the job done. Team members can file-share, chat, and videoconference, allowing synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.
This efficient and easy to use project-based concept is at the core of the TABLE platform.
At TABLE we've created a retail collaboration and clienteling platform that takes messenger-based collaboration to the next level, because collaborating with customers must go far beyond giving them the ability to collaborate with people they know.
Sure, we allow customers to invite their friends, family, and colleagues, but we also allow businesses to ask the right questions, discover their customers' needs, and connect them to whom or what they need in a seamless, intuitive way, no matter where they are along the journey.
With a focus on solving a customer's problem rather than just selling a product, we create a Table (channel) that remains for the entire project (or client-specific need).
Zoe, our AI-powered personal assistant, manages the relationship by asking and answering questions and triaging crews in and out as needed. Zoe also learns from all interactions, champions customer intent, assists agents, and becomes more relevant over time.
Not all crews are the same. For example, when a customer needs help selecting products, a Product Expert Agent should join the Table in seconds, but when an in-home consultation is needed, an appointment flow is more relevant. For this reason, agents can be accessed synchronously, asynchronously, and through appointment flows, from product selection all the way through post sales.
All communication remains project relevant and everyone, including friends, family, or colleagues, can receive notifications, contribute, create product lists, and even checkout without leaving the Table.
The TABLE platform becomes a unified part of a business’ offering, matching its look and feel, and bridging physical and digital experiences. It is easily white-labeled and integrated into a business' mobile and web apps. It connects to existing platforms, product catalogs, and checkout flows in the most secure way. Tables can also be accessed via emails, SMS, social media, other apps, and more. We provide agents with a simple interface that, beyond managing existing relationships, allows them to initiate new ones on any device, in-store, online, or over the phone.
This means that an agent can also start a Table (channel) and invite a customer to it while helping that customer in a store or over the phone, bridging the physical interaction to a digital experience, and initiating the seamless collaboration process that will ensure customers are taken care of, no matter where they go next.
In the future, brick-and-mortar stores won't disappear. In Fact, about 73% of 1,000 U.S. consumers surveyed by Citi Retail Services said they plan to shop at brick-and-mortar stores this holiday season. The stores will remain as a place where businesses can provide valuable experiences for people who need to interact with certain products and services in a physical way. They will be an option in a menu that caters to their customers’ needs. The biggest challenge to businesses will be tying everything together into a personalized and seamless experience across channels. The TABLE Retail Platform was designed for just that purpose. With it, retailers can become the solutions providers in their vertical, delighting customers, and beating the competition that focuses on price, selection, and delivery speed.
An Aha Moment Born Out of Frustration#
Every generation boasts about how advanced it is, pointing out scientific and technological marvels, but the truth is that what we actually experience in our daily life often considerably lags behind what is possible, obligating us to endure inefficient, bumpy, and downright primitive experiences. This has been especially true in the retail sector.
Like many Americans, I have a daily commute to work. I've learned to use it wisely, scheduling conference calls, and tending to the simple tasks in my to-do list that I can do on a messenger app and over a speaker.
Two years ago, during a commute, I tried to buy a Smart TV for a not so tech-savvy friend that was obsessed with Game of Thrones. The season was about to start, her old TV was almost extinct, and it was connected to one of those wonderfully expensive cable services that keep ‘80s technology alive and remind us that utility-ish companies have historically built moats around their businesses. Since I was in tech, she figured I could solve her problem. I tried.
I wanted to make sure that she could get the best possible viewing experience she could afford, but it wasn't easy.
The root of the problem was that I was trying to solve her viewing issue rather than just buying a TV.
Unfortunately, I had to pull over and jump on Amazon.com and a few other sites. It was easy to find smart TVs within the price range since all the sites pretty much had the same products, but it was hard to differentiate one TV from the other.
Good thing I was parked, because I started juggling several apps: I pinged some friends on social media, pasted some Amazon links on a messenger app, and ended up calling them so we could talk about what we were seeing on our own screens.
It wasn't easy, but after a while we narrowed it down to what seemed a good option. I still wasn't off the hook though. Who would install and configure the thing? And of course, she would eventually want it connected to everything. Amazon couldn't help in this department so I decided to try a large consumer electronics retailer that boasted installation service on its site with a 1-800 number to boot.
After getting nowhere on its chat widget, telling my story 3 times to 3 different call-center agents, waiting and listening to some lovely elevator music and monotone pre-recorded messages telling me how busy everyone is and how special I am, all while relaying everything to my friend via SMS, we had nailed down a product, delivery date, and installation time.
An hour had passed and I knew the nightmare wasn't over. There were many more steps left before her Smart TV was streaming Game of Thrones and was connected to everything, and I was afraid of having little record of our progress, and no chance of getting off the hook, especially since I had to pay for it right away or all the work would be lost. As I pulled back into what was no longer rush hour traffic, I got stuck in a long red stop-light although there weren't any cars coming in either direction. Don't we have sensors?
How am I going to explain to my 2 year old when he grows up that when he was little we were constantly stopping at red lights even though there was no incoming traffic, let alone that businesses focused on selling products rather than solving their clients' actual problems?
I finally arrived at my office in Berkeley with that wonderful feeling that entrepreneurs get every once in a while:
A BIG problem urgently needed a good solution. As is commonly said in these circles, it needed an antibiotic rather than a vitamin.
My team and I had recently graduated from the Google Launchpad program at the GSV Pioneer Accelerator in Redwood City, where we built a messenger-based Expert Marketplace called TABLE. During the program, the main problem we were trying to solve was the efficient delivery of expertise. How could we quickly identify a user's needs and efficiently connect that person and their team to the right expert or experts no matter where they were located and along the entire project. TABLE was all about communication, matching, and collaboration, and we were project focused; certainly this was a great starting point for building a platform that could help businesses become solutions providers across channels and throughout the shopping experience. After all, it was still about the efficient delivery of expertise along a journey to a solution.
Where the Expert Marketplace had users on one side and experts on the other, the Retail Platform could have customers on one side and crews, agents, other customers, communities, AI bots, and products on the other. It was a very ambitious undertaking, but an important one.
It would affect how we consume products and services by shifting from a product to a customer-problem focus: from a helpdesk app, chatbot, or call center, to a project-based collaboration and clienteling platform.
For the business and the customer, the shopping-project would be the actual problem that the customer needs to solve. Which, in my friend's case, was vividly streaming Game of Thrones in her bedroom, stat.
My 10 years consulting experience to retailers kicked into high gear.
We asked ourselves,"Could customers really just care about price, selection, and delivery speed?"
After all, Amazon had captured 3% of total retail sales and was quickly making its way to 4% while major retailers were filing for bankruptcy on a monthly basis. We did a lot of research in this area and the data kept pointing in the same direction. Each customer had a problem that needed to be solved. Some customers knew what they wanted and they wanted it fast and cheap, but most of the time, that wasn't the case. We had found a huge opportunity.
While everyone was focusing on helping businesses help people at the point of sale, we would help them help customers along the entire journey, and in turn, transform retailers into solutions providers.
During our research we had boiled down the strategy into the following 3 categories: communication, personalization, and a seamless customer journey. In other words, businesses had to ask the right questions, get the right answers, and connect their customers to whom or what they needed, no matter where clients were in the process. It was clear that e-commerce sites could not do this. They followed the outdated product catalog format.
We were lucky to connect with a fortune 100 retailer that embraced the strategy of becoming a solutions provider early on. It was the perfect way to complete and test our beta. From there we could focus on V2, our commercially viable release that would introduce admin dashboards, an analytics panel, Zoe, our AI powered assistant, and much more.
10 months later we are ready to launch V2 and ZOE is on its way. With 4 more industry leaders deep in our funnel, we are optimistic about the future of retail. I still complain about getting stuck on red stop-lights when there is no incoming traffic, but I can easily search for a Smart TV, invite and create lists together with friends and expert agents in real time, coordinate installation and configuration, chat, video conference, file share, and much more on a single Table, without having to pull over. Best of all, anyone can checkout. The world may not be perfect, but it's easier to be a good friend.