AI in Retail: Q&A with Chris McGrath of Marks & Spencer
Here Natalie Bruins interviews Chris McGrath, IT & digital programme manager at Marks & Spencer, ahead of his speaking slot at Retail Bulletin’s AI in Retail Conference on 16 October.
Tell us about your role at M&S
I’m responsible for leading IT and digital engagement transformational programmes within M&S. My role is focused on technologies that will allow us to reduce costs, drive sales, and improve customer experience.
I am running several transformative development programmes in alignment with the M&S digital first strategy, one of which is the implementation of a natural language solution driven by machine learning and BOT technologies for our store estate. Another is to modernise our contact centres with natural language call steering and voice automated self-service. These projects have been great examples of driving innovation in an established company with great heritage.
How and why are M&S using natural language processing?
Marks & Spencer’s infrastructure was built on a mixture of legacy phone systems that could not support its digital strategy going forward. As a result, we were unable to centralise customer information and it was a challenge to seamlessly connect customers to the right service point. As part of our digital transformation initiative, natural language processing (NLP) was implemented across our store estate to better understand why our customers are calling us, be more responsive to them and improve their experience with M&S.
We rolled this programme out in an experimental, test-and-learn, lean agile way. We wanted to make the best of the technology and think in terms of blank canvas primary innovation. For us that was a different way of thinking and it paid off. In just four weeks, we were able to design a prototype MVP that would automate our existing switchboard, using voice and speech APIs. We then tested the technology during a trial run on Marks & Spencer’s busiest periods of the year Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. The system handled more than 60,000 customer calls.
This solution, driven by AI-powered interactions and intelligent routing, provides us with real time visibility into the business. We now have more direct and meaningful conversations with our customers and have been able to reallocate valuable staff time. More than 100 employees were reassigned to shop-floor customer facing roles instead of being in the back-office providing the Switchboard service. For me, this was remarkable, an example of transformation working where technology is not displacing people and improving business operationally. The real promise of AI lies in its ability to free-up humans to cultivate a good customer experience rather than deal with time-consuming repetitive tasks.
Since deployment, we have increased routing accuracy by over 70% in comparison to the legacy Touch-tone (DTMF) IVRs. We are translating customer queries into actionable intent with more than 99% accuracy and have a deeper understanding of what our customers are saying in real time.
The results are impressive, what next?
M&S is an iconic brand which has been trading since 1884. As you would expect, there is a fair amount of legacy technology around. When we implement modernized systems, we need to be aware of protecting our heritage brand whilst offering the right experience. We need to modernise and keep up and we’ve still got some way to go.
Developing this platform was just the beginning. From addressing common customer needs using chatbots, to improving the IVR experience to be even more personalised and relevant – we are constantly looking at improvements.
What can we expect to learn from you at the Retail Bulletin AI event in October?
I’m looking forward to joining my industry peers to talk about a practical approach for delivering and experimenting with technology. Based on my experience, I will offer some advice and learnings on how to innovate to deliver strategic, value led outcomes.
Delegates signing up by 12 August qualify for a 50% discount on the conference price, which means they can attend for just £125. Use the discount code RETAILER50 when booking.
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