IBM Watson is having a moment with brands.

The North Face, Macy’s and 1-800 Flowers are some of the brands collaborating with the supercomputer to glean insights from the increasing mounds of data they collect from customers. 

1-800 Flowers launched its IBM Watson-powered concierge service last May to help customers get more personalized results, at scale. Its name, “Gwyn,” stands for “gifts when you need.”

Gwyn is not a chatbot, though, said vp of marketing and customer experience Jon Mandell. “No two conversations are the same.”

Here’s what 1-800 Flowers has learned, nine months in.

People don’t mind spending time
According to Mandell, the average person asks Gwyn five to six questions, spending more than two minutes with the service.

“Often brands think of ease and speed as one and the same. That’s not true,” Mandell said. “If the customer thinks their time is well spent, they are fine spending two minutes with you.”

UI is paramount
Gwyn is now on its second beta, having been tested by a smaller, closed group of customers back in May. Launched with 1,000 products, that version featured a conversation that was delivered one question at a time. One drawback was that earlier questions and and answers would vanish as the conversation progressed. Customers found it confusing not being able to see their full conversation, or change their preferences.

Now the current version, which features 7,000 products, mimics messaging platforms like WhatsApp — giving a back-and-forth that the user can scan back over. It also provides a selection of keywords that Gwyn has picked up from the conversation that the user can alter.

gwyn
A conversation with Gwyn, which now appears more like a regular chat app.

The initial question about turn-off delivery information is also pushed to the end, as it’s not relevant to all of the brands on the site. In future, the company plans to contain the checkout process within the app.

Customers are polite to AI
Unlike Microsoft’s bot Tay, which was taught by trolls to love Hitler, Gwyn has learned everything she knows from staff inside the company’s walls. Essentially, she can’t go off script because she doesn’t know there is a script. But one thing the 1-800 team didn’t factor into her education was etiquette. “Most people are really friendly to her,” said Mandell. “They say ‘hi’ back, they’re really polite.”

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Because the interface resembles a messaging service, it gives the conversation a human quality. Gwyn has been set up to understand basic pleasantries, and as a result, 80 percent want to use the experience again. “It’s like the flower shop back in 1970s New York. People want those pleasantries.”

It’s helping multi-brand buys
One of the company’s main goals moving forward is to create consumers that buy products across its different brands.

“We’re shifting focus from an occasion-based gifting company to one that understands an occasion, the recipient and their relationship to them.” Part of the way to do this is to take the human bias out of the company’s marketing and merchandising decisions.

The fact that Gwyn is “brand agnostic,” as Mandell puts it, means customers can find products outside of their intended purchase. “People came here for flowers, but it’s not what they checked out with,” he said. More than half the site’s revenue now comes from its food brands, which include Cheryl’s Cookies and The Popcorn Factory.

It’s a balancing act
When 1-800 Flowers launched its Facebook Messenger bot last year, the company rolled in human agents who could take over if it ran into difficulties. But two weeks ago the team separated the customer service function to prevent customer confusion.

“You want the conversation to feel natural, but not like you’re talking to an actual person,” said Mandell. This has helped inform Gwyn, by setting out her role from the start as a virtual assistant. In the future, she’ll be able to do customer service — but that’s not quite ready yet. On issues like sympathy gifts, she defers to real phone agents who have experience in the tricky area. Though in the future, she may be a subject matter expert, who can advise on religious ceremonies and other factors. “We needed to put safeguards there as it carries a lot of emotion,” he said.

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