Q&A: TurnTo CEO George Eberstadt Talks Assisted Shopping

October 17, 2014 by John Swords

This interview was originally posted by StellaService’s Happy Customer Blog on October 8th, 2014 located here!

Happy Customer is always on the lookout for innovative approaches to customer service. We recently visited with TurnTo Networks CEO George Eberstadt about his company’s approach to “Assisted Shopping.” Retailers using TurnTo’s technology include Saks Fifth Avenue, Newegg and Sur La Table.

What is “Assisted Shopping” and how is it different from live chat?

The difference is in the approach. Both share the vision of taking the customer experience that a shopper gets with a primo in-store associate and bringing it to the web: the shopper can ask questions in her own words and get the information she needs back quickly. Live chat takes a very literal approach: make the associate available to the web shopper by putting her on the other end of a chat line. “Assisted Shopping”, on the other hand, says: use ALL the resources that the web makes available to get shoppers the fastest possible answers from the best sources, whatever the question. That includes tapping into the wisdom of fellow customers, going beyond the associate to the merchandise category manager (who probably wrote the training materials for the associate!), reaching out to the manufacturer, tapping into all the content in the store’s FAQs or help center.  And, yes, even involving the store associate – not just the one in the call center, but the one who covers that category at the nearest store. Also, Assisted Shopping can be faster than live chat much of the time by enabling instant answers from a continuously-learning knowledge base. Studies show shoppers often prefer self-help. And when a live chat is needed, Assisted Shopping provides a seamless escalation path.

What sort of results can online merchants expect from this type of solution?

There are many value-levers for stores using this technology: Conversion lift, SEO, reducing call center load, reducing returns, increasing loyalty, and gaining merchandising insights.

  • Conversion lift: Shoppers who interact with tools like these convert at 3-7X the rate of those who don’t.  Further control group testing shows that about 25% of this lift is causal (ie not just cherry-picking shoppers who were going to buy anyway).  That’s a big effect.
  • SEO: The community aspect of Assisted Shopping – enabling shoppers to get questions answered by fellow customers who already own the products they are considering — produces 2-4 times more user-generated content (UGC) than customer reviews do.  UGC is one of the most effective strategies for SEO, so more is better.  Stores have reported increases in organic traffic of 20% from this tool.
  • Reducing call center load:  Shopper questions that get answered by the community or from the knowledge base never end up in the call center.  That’s faster, better answers for the shopper, and less work for the store staff – depending on the category, up to 30% less.
  • Reducing returns: fashion and apparel businesses, in particular, can reduce returns by enabling shoppers to get authentic feedback from past customers who have experience with the products.  Assisted Shopping systems work with sizing charts and fitting tools to help online shoppers get it right the first time.
  • Increasing loyalty:  Fast, authentic answers from the best source for the question are part of a great online shopping experience and have been measured to increase repeat purchase rates 15-40%.
  • Merchandising insights:  Assisted Shopping tools make it easy to see what causes shoppers to hesitate before buying, what information they need but aren’t getting, or unexpected ways they plan to use their purchases.  That’s great insight for optimizing merchandising, and it starts to build up from the very first day an item goes on sale.

Is this just a pre-sales tool, or is there a post-sales support application?

Although we call it Assisted Shopping, there’s no reason the assistance needs to stop at the sale. All the same resources work post-purchase, making content from the help center or community forums, as well as the experience of customers who own the product, easily accessible for trouble-shooting. One exciting application is the post-purchase question solicitation email, which works particularly well when combined with the review solicitation email. In effect, it says: “Ready to review your recent purchase, click here. Need help getting the most from it, click here instead.”  Not only does this improve customer satisfaction, but it can turn what would have been negative reviews into positive ones.

Can Assisted Shopping work in physical stores, too?

The vision of bringing the deep content available on the web into the store aisle has been around for a while.  But there have been two major obstacles.  One is easily identifying the items on the shelf, the other is easily retrieving the relevant information. QR codes and scanners were supposed to solve the first challenge but turned out to have limited scope. A new generation of solutions that combine native mobile apps with scanners, or perhaps beacons, now appear likely to solve this challenge at scale.  There’s still a second problem: too much information to be easily retrieved on a small screen by a shopper standing in a store aisle. That’s where Assisted Shopping comes in. By making asking a question as easy as writing a text, these systems make nearly limitless resources instantly and easily available to the in-store shopper.

Is this a tool for brand manufacturers as well as for retailers?

There are multiple ways manufacturers can benefit from Assisted Shopping tools (in addition to deploying them on their own online storefronts). An easy one is to participate in answering shopper questions from the merchants that stock their products. With features like “instant answers”, this can be efficient as well as effective, as each answer becomes a resource for future shoppers with the same question, too. And the insights that come from seeing what questions shoppers have at the point of purchase can be highly valuable for manufacturers. Even more powerful is the ability for manufacturers to use these tools to extend all the rich content they provide about their products on their own site out to their channels. Now detailed product info and rich media that a merchant might not make available on their product pages can be accessed by any shopper in response to a question. By breaking the trade-off between extensive information and clutter, Assisted Shopping tools enable manufacturers to deliver all the information that will help close a sale while enabling merchants to maintain a streamlined shopping experience and consistent templates.