Chatbot scales to meet surge in demand at NZ supermarket

Countdown’s chatbot, which went from 1,000 interactions a month to more than 20,000 a day during the lockdown, shows importance of getting it right in the upfront design.

sally copland countdown

Despite bullish predictions a couple of years ago, local businesses have been slower to deploy chatbots than expected. Yet the 183-store supermarket chain Countdown has found that virtual assistants can be a useful tool in the customer-service arsenal during challenging times such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Countdown is among 26% of organisations in New Zealand and Australia to deploy virtual assistants. Analyst firm Gartner noted in its 2019 CIO Agenda report that “ANZ CIOS are not being very innovative in creating use cases for AI.” Today’s 26% reality falls short of its prediction in 2017 that in two years 40% of enterprises would be actively using chatbots to facilitate business processes using natural-language interactions.

Countdown’s chatbot Olive, which launched in September 2019, had been answering about 1,000 queries a month, until the lockdown in March 2020. A sudden surge in registrations to its online store—200,000 in three months—was accompanied by a massive increase in interactions with Olive, with April alone seeing 300,000 online conversations taking place.

“We initially started with fewer than 1,000 conversations with Olive a month, and were expecting to slowly bring her to life and gradually make Olive more and more helpful for our customers. However, those plans were thrown out the door when our volumes exceeded 20,000 conversations in a day during the pantry-stocking period before the lockdown and during the COVID-19 lockdown itself,” says Sally Copland, Countdown’s general manager for digital.

Functionality was quickly added, and Olive was deployed in every customer channel that made sense, from the shopping app to the call flow in the contact centre. Live chat was also introduced, taking just five days to deploy. “This proved invaluable through this incredibly challenging time,” Copland says.

Olive was created by the company’s digital division CountdownX, with local digital design and engineering firm ClearPoint. They were able to use technology that Countdown’s parent company in Australia, Woolworths, had created for its chatbot. Even so, development was relatively fast, moving from concept to customer pilot to launch in just three months. Initial features for Olive were providing store hours and shopping FAQs.

“While virtual assistants are still fairly new in New Zealand, we researched a range of overseas examples and also took a lot of learnings from Woolworths in Australia who we often work with in the digital space. They’d seen great success with Olive’s Australian cousin [also called Olive], and we were keen to bring this type of service and support to Kiwis as well,” Copland says.

For organisations interested in deploying virtual assistants, Copland has the following advice:

  • Think of it as a new channel, not a project.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of the insights you’ll mine.
  • Automated testing and deployment are critical to being able to move fast safely—bake it in right from the beginning.
  • Success requires strong multi-team collaboration across all departments of a company.
  • Experiment and give it a go. If you’re honest and humble, people will forgive trial and error. Sometimes it’s better to be a little helpful than to wait until something is perfect.

Her advice is echoed by ClearPoint product manager Marcus Simmons, who led a team of five on the development initially—a principal engineer, delivery lead, business analyst/conversation designer and two developers. “One of the benefit areas that people often miss or underestimate the value of [chatbots] is as a source of customer insights. Olive is often the first to uncover service pain points and provides evidence around the scale of the problem,” Simmons says.

“We’ve only just scratched the surface with what is ultimately possible for a virtual assistant in the food retail industry. The challenge over the next couple of years is to integrate Olive with online services at Countdown. One day, we hope Olive will be able to help you shop and sort out any issues with your account on the spot.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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