Last month high street stalwart Marks & Spencer (M&S) announced plans to overhaul its customer services department with an AI offering.\r\n\r\nIts new automated system will enable 640 of the company\u2019s stores and 13 of its UK-based contact centres to automatically route voice calls, determine customer intent, transcribe voice calls into text, and soon, deliver SMS updates on deliveries. It expects the system to process more than 12 million calls per annum.\r\nThe challenge\r\nDespite the availability of new technology like AI and Chatbots, the reality is that customers still like to talk to a real person. Research from Medallia and Ipsos found that 45% of offline and 35% of online retail customers still expect the option to chat with a live agent\/representative.\r\n\r\nIn light of this, M&S\u2019s news has caused ripples over the effect its service will have. This isn\u2019t unexpected, the automation of any service is often met by scepticism. There is the fear that services will be interrupted and that the personal touch of a company will be compromised. For retailers, particularly those with an omnichannel offering, there is the additional fear that any break in service will jeopardise the whole chain \u2013 causing customers to consider an alternative vendor.\r\n\r\nTrue, the introduction of any new system is likely to cause to cause a few hiccups in service throughout implementation. However, these hurdles may actually serve as advantages, as many AI based systems use machine learning, so they learn from the mistakes they make and improve quality over time. In addition, before any new project is undertaken, organisations will outline any potential adversarial impact on customers and plan accordingly to minimise disruption.\r\nThe opportunity\r\nAs to removing the personal touch, M&S believes that its new system will enable it to have more meaningful conversations with its customers. And it is right. While an automated system has numerous time-saving advantages, at the heart of this strategy is a desire to listen more closely to the voice of customers. This is absolutely pivotal to the success of any retailer, and indeed any organisation, today.\r\n\r\nEquipping yourself with the tools to listen to your customers can be incredibly powerful. The feedback provided by customers can shape how organisations operate - providing direct input on what\u2019s working and what\u2019s not, allowing organisations to get first-hand insight as to how to improve operations, test out new solutions and \u00a0better serve the needs of its customer base.\r\nWhat next?\r\nAdvancements such as these demonstrate a commitment by the retail sector to continue to make changes to make their businesses more efficient, and ultimately to better meet the needs of customers. It is a trend reflected across the sector, as retailers continue to amaze customers with innovative technology solutions. Take Zara\u2019s use of Augmented Reality displays as one such example. This technology enables customers in selected stores to hold up their mobile phones to sensors next to a display and shop the look. Here Zara is fusing its online and instore channels seamlessly to enhance customers\u2019 experiences.\r\n\r\nWhile customers will either fear change, or be nonplussed by it, M&S\u2019 news signifies the strides that the retail sector is making to improve services. The retail sector may be dogged with reports of store closures and financial woes; however, what we have here is a timely reminder of the innovation inherent in this industry. Automation is just one of the tools in retailers\u2019 arsenals to improve operations.\r\n\r\nWhen coupled with a sound customer experience strategy this will reap rewards for both retailers \u2013 who will benefit from streamlined operations and greater insight into the customer base - and for customers, who will have queries resolved quicker and see greater responsiveness to their feedback. The lesson here is clear - change should not be feared, but embraced as retailers seek to stride ahead in these turbulent times.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nKareena Uttamchandani, senior manager and solutions consulting at Medallia, which helps them capture customer feedback everywhere the customer is (on the phone, in store, online, mobile), understand it in real-time, and deliver insights and action everywhere.