AI for the Enterprise

How Staples is making customer service “easy” with Watson Conversation

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Ask any office manager about ordering supplies and you’re likely to get a few groans. Overseeing office procedures requires a level of complexity as customer expectations continue to grow. Shoppers today are looking to order exactly what they want, when they want it, no matter the time or place.


Office products and services superstore and US e-commerce leader, Staples, has partnered with IBM Watson to not only alleviate the back-office headache, but meet the increasing needs of their customers.

With more buying options than ever—and heightened customer expectations—Staples hopes to make it easier for businesses to order office supplies and services anytime, anywhere.

The Easy Button, an iconic element of the Staples brand, has adapted to the Easy System, which allows an office manager to simply place an order using any digital channel they choose. This includes the website, call center, email, text message, and one unique to the company—the Easy Button.

The big red button has leapfrogged past its pop culture iconic status and developed into a real-time, functional office tool.

The Easy Button gets smart

Staples transformed their Easy Button into an intelligent, voice-driven interface that can reorder office supplies with minimum human interaction. Cognitive computing was the obvious choice.

Cognitive computing combines machine learning, natural language processing and contextual understanding to create systems that can learn and interact with people. The technology allows systems to understand the world in a way more similar to humans: through senses, learning and experience.

This technology was a key requirement for Staples as it wanted a system that could, with minimal direction, learn each business’s preferences, including preferred products and quantities, and ultimately anticipate future needs.

In a single afternoon, Staples built a demo of a simple, but effective conversational platform using Watson services. “It was a wake-up call for us–that cognitive solutions are real and powerful,” says Ryan Bartley, Head of Applied Innovation at Staples.

“We felt that IBM had, by far, the largest lead in terms of where cognitive was going and that the Watson team would be in the best position to help our business users.”

Watson powers the Conversation

The key technology powering the Easy Button software platform is the Watson Conversation Service. Watson Conversation is an API that understands what users are saying and responds naturally, creating a conversational experience across any channel.

The big advantage of the Watson Conversation Service for Staples is it can be quickly trained to understand natural-language input and respond to customers in a way that simulates a conversation between humans.

Much like the way people interact in dialogue, Watson Conversation interprets the speaker’s words, directs the flow of the conversation and gathers information that it needs in order to accomplish the desired action.

In this way, the once tedious task of ordering office supplies becomes as easy as talking.

“Ordering supplies should be easier. The Easy Button makes it simple and magical. You tell it that you need pens and it knows exactly what you mean,” says Ian Goodwin, Lead Product Manager of the Staples Easy System.

Translating speech into intent

When a customer speaks into the Easy Button’s built-in microphone, the speech is first converted into text. Then, Watson Conversation does the heavy lifting to understand the customer’s intent contained in that text.

For example, if the customer says “I want to reorder black pens,” the system will attempt to identify the specific stock keeping unit (SKU) the customer had in mind without requiring further input from the customer.

This is done by searching through the customer’s purchasing history to identify the best match for “black pen” for that particular customer out of the products that Staples stocks.

If the system is fairly certain that the product it has selected is the one the customer meant, it reads back the choice and asks the customer to confirm the order vocally.

If it is not so sure, the system suggests various products based on past orders so that the customer can select the correct one.

If the system does not understand a customer’s request, it is forwarded to a human agent and the conversation with the agent is later used to train the system to successfully handle similar requests in the future.

In addition to Watson Conversation, the Easy Button application uses Watson Text to Speech, Watson Speech to Text and Watson Retrieve and Rank services to analyze the customer’s purchasing history, process the customer’s remarks and enable the Easy Button device to respond appropriately,

Easy Button can support multiple channels

As well as powering the Easy Button device, Staples plans to use the Watson partnership to support all of its chat experiences across its many channels, beginning with its mobile chat.

By reducing the friction inherent associated with ordering office supplies, Staples expects the Watson-powered Easy Button platform will bring sizable benefits such as higher order frequency, larger average order sizes and improved customer service scores.

Staples has its sights set on exploring how cognitive capabilities can be further embedded within software products and services across the Staples brand. “Anywhere we’re building or using software to help our customers or associates, we’re thinking about how cognitive services from Watson can be at the heart of that software product,” says Bartley.

For instance, by integrating natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning technologies with its existing big data and personalization platforms, Staples can gain a deeper understanding of customers and their preferences, enabling a higher level of individuality to each of its business customers.

Eventually, it hopes to be able to make product and services recommendations based on this better understanding of the customers’ preferences, behaviors and buying patterns

Read the case study to learn more about how Staples uses Watson Conversation to understand its customers.

Learn how to build your own chatbot using Watson Conversation here.



How can you build a chatbot for your business?

Program Director, Watson Engagement Advisor Marketing

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