Staples Installs Two-Way Video Customer Service Stations

For stores that find it too expensive to hire floor employees that care or can actually tell you where an item is without being insolent and rude (we’re looking at you, Home Depot), your solution is here.

“Video Agent” is essentially a video-conferencing kiosk that connects you with an off-site employee. Staples Canada is going to put them in 34 stores across Canada, one “live agent” per store in the copy area. On the other side of the screen will be one of six experienced sales reps located in a Toronto call center. They will have access to the full store layout and can tell you if your item is in stock in the store. The live agents will sport the same garb as a regular store employee.

According to a company representative, we could very well be seeing these in US Staples, and other US stores, within a year. Supposedly, they won’t replace any store employees but will instead augment their number.

What do you think? Boon for customer service, or sign of the apocalypse? Press release, below…

STAPLES BUSINESS DEPOT AND EXPERTICITY

BRING FUTURE OF CUSTOMER SERVICE TO CANADA

STAPLES Becomes First Mass Market Retailer to Adopt Pioneering “VIDEO AGENT”

Two-Way Video Customer Service Stations in 34 Stores Across Canada

Seattle, WA – July 15, 2008 — Experticity, the pioneering provider of video-assisted customer support solutions, today announced that STAPLES Business Depot, Canada’s largest supplier of business supplies, has signed an agreement with Experticity to roll out the innovative retail “VIDEO AGENT” customer service stations to 34 stores across Alberta, Canada. Using VIDEO AGENT, STAPLES Business Depot can now provide shoppers with new ways to get expert assistance when shopping their stores. Customers can walk up to VIDEO AGENT station and engage in a live, two-way video conversation with a highly trained sales associate who uses the interactive Experticity platform to push content from the Internet to consumers or place orders for customized business supplies. The agreement follows a comprehensive pilot evaluation in which STAPLES Business Depot rigorously tested the VIDEO AGENT concept, using it both as a vehicle to help shoppers get answers as well as a new resource for small business customers to create business materials.

“Shoppers have more options than ever and are unwilling to wait around to find a knowledgeable sales associate to answer their question,” said James Pelrine, Manager of Process Improvement for STAPLES Business Depot. “The response to VIDEO AGENT over the past two years has been overwhelmingly positive. People love the convenience of a standalone station where they can talk to real people and get great customer service. In addition, we have determined that VIDEO AGENT not only improves our customer service levels but also contributes to our bottom line.”

STAPLES Business Depot has been pilot testing VIDEO AGENT since 2006, when it installed six stations in five Toronto stores (including the busiest store in Canada located in Fort McMurray, Alberta). The VIDEO AGENT is a self-standing unit that includes a web camera, microphone, a scanner, and a customized user-interface that enables shoppers and sales agents to engage in real-time conversation via high quality video. STAPLES Business Depot has staffed a call center in Toronto with six highly experienced sales associates who can be routed to any of the 34 stores in an on-demand fashion. Through “right-staffing”, managers at STAPLES Business Depot can maximize the utilization levels of their most knowledgeable employees and pool them across multiple stores, gaining new efficiencies while providing higher service levels.

“While the Internet has given consumers new options when it comes to shopping, they still want a more personal level of service. However, when they go to a store and can’t get the service they need, they’re more inclined to take their dollars elsewhere,” said DL Baron, founder and CEO of Experticity. “By integrating cutting edge, customer friendly technology into their store environment, STAPLES Business Depot has demonstrated its commitment to providing an exceptional retail experience, one that will help them succeed in a highly competitive market.”

About STAPLES Business Depot

The Business Depot Ltd. was founded in Toronto in 1991. It is Canada’s largest supplier of office supplies, business machines, office furniture and business services for the small business and home office customer. The company is an everyday low price retailer. The chain operates stores in all provinces across Canada under the banners STAPLES® Business Depot™ and BUREAU EN GROS™. The company has over 13,000 employees serving customers through more than 265 office superstores, catalogue, and e-commerce. STAPLES® Business Depot™/BUREAU EN GROS™ is committed to making shopping easy by offering customers three ways to shop – online, by catalogue and in-store. More information is available at http://www.staples.ca.

About Experticity

Headquartered in Seattle, Washington, Experticity is the pioneer of live on-screen expert staffing technologies and has been developing remote service solutions for the retail industry since 2005. Experticity’s patent pending, proprietary right-staffing technology enables companies to load-balance live customer service staff from a remote location to service front-lines, using real-time, two-way video, audio, and data screens to provide customers with a personalized, one-on-one service experience. In 2007, Experticity was recognized by Red Herring Magazine as one of the Top 100 most promising technology companies in the world.

Comments

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  1. Angryrider says:

    What’s going to stop them or other stores from doing a video feed to India?
    Besides I’ll feel like a dork talking to a tv screen.

  2. Zephyr7 says:

    Interesting how they pass it off as “Face-to-face”.

  3. iMe2 says:

    I have to say this is a great concept. Whether it can be executed competently is another matter. I’m tired of store representatives only acting as sales people, but on the other hand a store that’s not well-managed can make asking someone off-premises even more of a headache.

    But just the thought of having dedicated CS people constantly interacting with customers and gaining experience dealing with customer problems, face-to-face, is a good one.

  4. AMetamorphosis says:

    Wow, now I can be spoken down to in a condecending manner by a salesperson a whole continent away !

    Ain’t technology wuunnerful ?

  5. mikedt says:

    This could be useful if the people on the other end have more knowledge of a product that what’s written on the box itself. I hate asking some rep a question and he reads me what’s on the back of the box. I can read it myself, and I more than likely already have.

  6. kepler11 says:

    McDonald’s already does something like this at a few stores, where the drive up window is staffed by someone via telephone, who then inputs your order and displays it to the store personnel to assemble. They say it improves order accuracy and frees the store staff to work.

  7. SkokieGuy says:

    Whew! Staples receives the Candian award for the world’s longest press release.

    We Americans were too busy consuming low priced good to notice when most manufacturing went overseas.

    Then we thought that at least the service economy jobs would remain.

    We now have fast food drive through speakers staffed by personnel in other countries and now Staples has ousourced actually having store employees.

    Next? Perhaps walk into a cubicle, pee in a cup, breath into a tube, step on a scale and via teh internets, a doctor on the other side of the earth diagnoses you. From the future press release: “We are proud to help improve the health of American by making health care more affordable for everyone”

  8. RStewie says:

    I’m completely down with this. I think they should use it to replace some of the sales staff, even. Then, IF I need help, I can get it, without some 16yr old following me around the store.

  9. Now if they could incorporate the technology they had on the Enterprise D where the wall panels lit up to lead you where you had to go, or maybe something on the floor.

  10. NightSteel says:

    So all these people will be are glorified maps of the store? That seems like a waste. Now, empower these people to resolve REAL customer service issues, and you’re on to something..

  11. homerjay says:

    Imagine what would happen if they got their lines crossed with the local McDonalds drive-thru.
    Hilarity would ensue!

  12. Wormfather is Wormfather says:

    Now if those videos ask me to see a receipt, I can punch em in the face without being charged with assult.

  13. laserjobs says:

    It is going to be so much fun moving items around to the wrong area now

  14. 3drage says:

    @mikedt: If you are looking for technical information you should probably talk to a savvy friend or go to a different store that has a technical consultant as part of their staff. You’re likely expecting MCSE level support from a college kid who probably has no experience beyond text messaging on a cell phone.

  15. TheSpatulaOfLove says:

    @Wormfather is Wormfather:

    Instead, it’ll be charged as vandalism.

  16. Marshfield says:

    I can see it being somewhat helpful, as the last floor employee I talked to at Staples didn’t know any more about envelopes than I did by simply looking at the packages in the aisle.

    But will they tell you to ‘go to aisle 7, and then halfway down on the right, third shelf from the bottom, there should be three boxes of what you want’

    I’d find that unlikey to work very well in practice.

  17. ThinkerTDM says:

    I think this is an excellent idea! Instead of having 6 lazy, untrained employees talking at the front counter, you can have one lazy untrained employee!

  18. Tiber says:

    Here’s a thought. If the guy on the other end can just look at the floor plan and inventory and see if it’s in stock and where, why don’t they just add a product finder program right into these kiosks? That way the remote CS guy doesn’t even need to bother with most of those questions at all.

  19. not2techy says:

    “Supposedly, they won’t replace any store employees but will instead augment their number.”

    Forgive my skepticism. Once they get the thing tested and working properly, it will become a standard staff reduction tool similar to the self-checkout stands. Maybe not for Staples, and maybe not at first. But soon, and for the rest of our lives.

  20. SkokieGuy says:

    @Tiber: If the person at the other end can look at inventory and a floor plan and tell you where something is……

    Why can’t any other store? Every large store already has this system in-house. They are never accurate.

  21. dweebster says:

    “Welcome to Jack in the Box”

  22. maevealleine says:

    I’m not sure exactly how to feel about this. On one hand I want to applaud the unique way technology is being used here. On the other hand, “Welcome to the Matrix…”

  23. RevRagnarok says:

    My credit union does something similar, you can hear them in the back room thru the wall a little. It’s weird, but they say it is more efficient and stuff because they never wait for you – while you are signing the deposit form, they’re handling the guy next to you. There must be some truth to it; I’ve never been in line there.

    You basically walk up to what looks like an ATM with a phone handle and a vacuum transport tube like the drive-thru does.

  24. Yurei says:

    6 call center agents, 34 stores to use the system…. me thinks there be a hole in their math. That’s 5.6 stores per agent. Now come on, what happens if a bunch of stores at once have people at the kiosk calling in for help from an agent and they’re all busy. Do they put you on a “please hold” screen? I hate being on hold on the phone, I can only imagine my frustration at being put on hold IN THE STORE x_x;

    Sounds like a good idea but, seriously hire some more people to answer questions please and thanks.

    And… has anyone else been thinking of obnoxious crank calls and such waste of time that are possible with these things?

    *walks up to the staples kiosk*

    “Hi, my name is [so and so], how may I help you?”

    “Can you tell me where to find the nearest pizza joint? My GPS system is broken in my car.”

    “…Excuse me?”

    “Well isn’t that what you’re here for? to help people? Oh nevermind, let me see a phone book then if you don’t know.”

    …… Yeah, I can see SOMEONE trying it >_>; Or even worse, computer illiterate people will sit there trying to get help from the thing, and get all frustrated and leave when they can’t figure it out, which then defeats the whole purpose of hiring an actual person to be in store. You know those type of people, the ones that scream at the self check out attendants when the self check out doesn’t do what they expected because they either lack the ability to read, use problem solving skills and logic, or both.

  25. Yurei says:

    edit: this “and get all frustrated and leave when they can’t figure it out, which then defeats the whole purpose of hiring an actual person to be in store.”

    should read:

    “and get all frustrated and leave when they can’t figure it out, which then defeats the whole purpose using the automated thing instead of hiring an actual person to be in store.

  26. algormortis says:

    when i moron out and can’t find something at staples, they tend to lead you to the item when you find someone, which tends to not be all that hard locally.

    i was in a staples in NYC and i woulda killed for this tool, though, because there were no people to be found.

  27. vladthepaler says:

    Why the attack on Home Depot. Every time I’ve been there, employees have been knowledgeable and helpful. If I ask where an item is, the employee will often stop what he is doing (stocking shelves etc) and take me to the item rather than just telling me which aisle. Even if it’s far away, in a different department.

  28. SkokieGuy says:

    @vladthepaler: Why attack Home Depot? Because most everyone has had foul experiences with Home Depot. Because the former CEO fired all the knowledgable old-time hardware guys and replacement them with low paid unskilled employees and reduced store staffing levels. Because their inventory plan eliminates products based on sales activity, with no common sense applied (we’ll sell a faucet but not the gasket to repair it. We’ll sell a furnace, but not all the ducting elbows needed to install it)

    Exactly what Home Depot in what city do you receive sucy wonderful service at?

    I have two within a 2 mile radius, both are understaffed, understocked, and at prime times often have only 1 register open, but will have 5 or 6 employess clustered around the self-service checkouts. The employees are unhelpful, unknowledgable, unmotivated and will not interupt their own personal chit-chat, let alone actual work duties (restocking) to assist.

    Does this answer your question?

  29. Landru says:

    Picture standing there in the store, wait for a long time, getting a crappy noisy video connection to someone who can barely speak english. Whose name is “Clark”. Who offers to transfer you to a supervisor and then hangs up on you.
    I can’t wait. I predict a new sport of watching other customers yell at them.

  30. maneki neko says:

    What’s to keep the ‘live agents’ from being insolent, rude, and uninformed like the standard floor person? I’d imagine they would be hired roughly from the same pool of people, and thus they’d probably get the same wages and benefits. Plus they have the added factor of not actually being with you in the store. If someone’s not actually physically present, it makes it a whole lot harder to care.

    The fact that they’re ‘highly trained sales associates’ doesn’t impress me too much. Aren’t the CS reps who take calls for companies remotely supposed to be trained at this stuff too? Ha.

  31. cpt.snerd says:

    @Landru: It can be a new game show though… People can gather passerbys in the store and all crowd around the monitor to interpret what the CSR said. Bam – overnight popularity!

    But really – at least they are starting with native based call centers before they outsource it…

  32. varro says:

    @vladthepaler: It depends on what Home Depot it is – the local one (Jantzen Beach, Portland) tends to be woefully understaffed, so much so that I’ll only go there if I can’t find something at the local True Value or Lowe’s.

  33. BugNet says:

    Don’t know about everyone else, but wherer I have a choice between a live human at a check out or the self-check-out, I take the live one, even where it means a reasonable wait. I see I am not alone in this choice, either! I would not use this type of “video customer service station” unless I were totally desparate, and would in fact go to competitors’ stores instead if they used physically present employees over this boneheaded idea.

    Plus it means one less job, however low paying, for someone who wants or needs it.

    Lastly, it is —as numerous posts here suggest— very impersonal and not what a service oriented company should provide.

    “Can I help you?” What kind of question is that if they can’t even be in the same doggone building that I’ve come to shop in?

  34. NotATool says:

    How in the world do you outsource in-store help? Why in the world would you want to???

  35. cecilpl says:

    So how long before they also add in a bunch of those self-checkout machines and are thus able to do away with all staff in the store?

    Think about how nice it would be to be able to shop at Staples without ever once being harrassed by an employee. Now *that’s* what I call customer service.

  36. Scoobatz says:

    I can already picture myself walking down the aisle in Staples while the following is heard from a store’s intercom system:

    “Warm…warmer…COLD…COLD…warm…warmer…HOT…HOT…HOT, you found it!”

  37. ARP says:

    @mikedt: “This could be useful if the people on the other end have more knowledge of a product that what’s written on the box itself.”

    I thiink this is what many stores are leaning towards- having virtual sales reps with more knowledge of certain categories of products (computers, digicams, etc.). Granted, you should not rely on a salesperson to give you a lesson on a product category, but they could help you with specific questions (is this compatible with X?).

    I agree that having the reps help you find crap in the store is stupid and inefficient.

  38. unpolloloco says:

    @SkokieGuy: That’s being worked on (literally). Right now, it’s primary goals are improving medicine for the third world (giving people in remote areas access to doctors) and giving EMT’s immediate assistance in treating patients in-ambulance. Later, however, it’s a distinct possibility that that technology might transfer over into remote house-calls.

  39. I don’t like the automated check out. I like to see a real person, talk to them, smile at them… this is just another way to stores to drive down cost and decrease service. Every large retailer secretly dreams of the day when a store is similar to a giant vending machine with conveyor belts and touch screens pushing all the product for them.

  40. oldwiz says:

    More likely…
    Walk up to screen..
    Touch button requesting assistance..
    Screen displays “All of our agents are assisting our customers, please wait for the next available agent.”..
    While you wait, you get advertisements for Staples stuff, and if Staples is obsessive, perhaps advertisement for McDonalds next door, Hair restorer, or (xxx).

  41. Quatre707 says:

    This will fail, miserably.

  42. JayDeEm says:

    We have a bank that uses this same concept in place of walk-up tellers, presumably for security purposes. It creeps me out so I just go to the supermarket branch down the road when I need a non-ATM transaction.

    /plus ungood

  43. Quatre707 says:

    @cecilpl: Why don’t you shop at a store with bad customer service like Wal-Mart or Officemax, instead of Staples? You’re claiming “harassment” by employees at the chain with the highest customer satisfaction in US retail. Is being asked once by each floor associate that walks by you if you need assistance…really that bad?

  44. Tiber says:

    @SkokieGuy: Such a system as this requires that sort of information to be up-to-date. I’m not saying that it will be, I’m saying that the system I’m proposing and the system Staples is planning on using require the same information, so my way will be equally accurate, but won’t tie up an agent.

    @ARP: It could mean the people you talk to would be more knowledgeable, or it could mean that the guy on the other end will be reading off the internet instead of the box.

  45. ManiacDan says:

    @SkokieGuy: Plano TX has a great home depot, all full of old-time hardware guys, lots of registers open. There are some teenagers in orange aprons milling around being useless, but even some of them (like the paint counter kid) are surprisingly helpful.

    Maybe the home depot reverse aging ray didn’t hit every store.

  46. mikedt says:

    @3drage: I am the savy friend. :-) The occasion that sticks in my head is when I needed a phone headset with an rj9 plug. When I asked if they had a headset with that config (first I had to explain what an rj9 plug looks like) the clerk started looking at the back of the boxes. IIRC none of them mentioned what kind of plug they used. I don’t expect MSCE help, but again, it would be nice if somebody knew something/anything beyond what was written on the outside of a given box. Hire somebody with skills beyond text messaging.

  47. Invective says:

    I really *hate* being ‘managed’! It’s one of life’s great pet peeves for me. Once in a while I get busy needing something from a hardware store. I think to myself, “Home Depot will have it”. I run inside, grab what I need and get to the checkout. It’s then, that I remember I really *hate* Home Depot. Nothing personal, but when a store has NO live customer checkout assistance and my only choice is to be ‘managed’ through an automated customer assistance fucking checkout station, or ‘ACAFCS’ for short… This invokes an emotional response. Immediately I drop my stuff, I tell the clerk standing there like a traffic cop that I want real people to help me. Anyway Home Depot’s prices haven’t been that great in like, since for ever. So why be managed?!

    So now some aspiring VP at Staples has come up with another way to piss me off while shopping. I can talk to some guy in India, who has no clue what a floppy disk is, or why it’s not on his list, or why it is that some stupid born in the ’90s programmer who has never seen anything other than the $400 dollar Dell Workstation that didn’t come with a floppy, to save money… I’d just go find a live person in the back. If there wasn’t one taking a coffee / cigarette break, somewhere behind the store and all we have left is a bunch of kiosks, then maybe I’ll bring a nice cardboard box with some printed words on it that says ‘Customer Kiosk’ , with a little flashing LED on the top of it and leave it standing in line… Maybe someday stores will provide customers with an ‘Inline Customer Therapist’ so we can have someone to talk to while we are being ‘managed’. But I digress…

  48. fearuncertaintydoubt says:

    Good: can focus on training a smaller corps of reps who really know the product
    Bad: Remoteness of reps reduces human touch, makes them less sensitive to customer needs

    Good: store employees can focus on running registers and stocking the product
    Bad: store employees will get stupider, and say “go ask the kiosk”

    Good: a chain-wide pool of reps will balance the extremes — stores with low utilization will not have wasted employee time, stores with high utilization will have access to a wider pool to handle peaks
    Bad: Staples will squeeze the profit from this efficiency of a shared pool and not staff to peak times. Hundreds of people queuing up chain-wide for a small number of reps.

    Good: Consistency in customer service across the chain
    Bad: Uniformly poor service possible now.

    Good: A successful implementation could mean an improvement to customer service at other stores and industries through similar means
    Bad: If customers swallow it even if it is worse, everyone else will adopt it anyway. Even if Staples does a good job with it, Best Buy might completely screw up their version, for instance (can you imagine?)

  49. BytheSea says:

    Annoying. If I want to find something on a computer, I don’t want to talk to a human. Just give me a directory.

  50. crankymediaguy says:

    “Forgive my skepticism. Once they get the thing tested and working properly, it will become a standard staff reduction tool similar to the self-checkout stands. Maybe not for Staples, and maybe not at first. But soon, and for the rest of our lives.”

    Bingo!

    What I’m trying to figure out is, when American business finally achieves its wet dream of eliminating all employees, who will have any money to spend on their goods and services?

  51. ogman says:

    I’m wondering, once everyone in this country is unemployed, who is going to buy all the junk these companies want to sell?

    This is an outsourcing ploy and nothing more. We’ve heard that stores will not reduce staff as a result of these moves before. It was a lie then and it’s a lie now. I’m going to make a proactive move and stop shopping at Staples today.

  52. Frank_Castle says:

    I can’t possibly tell any of you how utterly delighted I am by this turn of events.

    As a former manager for a competitor of Staples (no, not Office *Max*), I think this idea is grand. A large part of working in retail is detesting the people who come into your store. Regulars are one thing, b*tchy people who expect personal shoppers are quite another (and that forgives the idea of customers who want us to break company policy because they are ‘important’ or ‘will never shop here again’).

    If someone had told me when I was working retail that I could have a system that would cause customers to bother me less, I would have been thrilled. And *I* was the Customer Service Manager, with various awards for going ‘above and beyond in pursuit of customer service’.

    Remember, just because they serve you, doesn’t mean they like you. If you have a problem with the idea of talking to a computer monitor… go somewhere else!

    PS: before I get chewed out for leaving such an anti-consumer rants at Consumerist, please look at retailsucks.com

    If you find yourself guilty of some of the things we complain about (and 90% of you will, I assure you), you have your right to complain about poor service revoked.

    “Customer service depends wholly on the customer; nice people get treated well, and people who b*tch at me don’t get sh*t” -Castle, at least once a day at his former job