Whenever we are presented with a question that we don’t have the answer to or a situation that is unfamiliar to us, we seek help. Historically, we might have sought out a book or a manual in our search for answers, or we might have asked someone for help. But, in today’s digital world, when presented with such a question or situation, we invariably end up searching for information and help on the internet through the use of third-party search engines.
Brands understand this and know that search engines are still one of the most important tools that customers use to help them find information and locate products and services. Therefore, it is no surprise that brands spend a lot of time and resources working with the major search engines to make sure that they can be found and that customers can find what they are looking for, too.
However, searching for information and products using a search engine is only part of a customer’s journey.
What happens if a customer, rather than resorting to a third-party search engine, goes straight to the source, i.e. the brand’s website, when looking to ask a question about a product, report a problem or return a product, for example?
Let me show you.
I typed ‘customer service’ into the search bars of five well-known UK & European online retailers, and here’s what I found:
- The onsite search engine of one of Europe’s biggest online fashion retailers produced 186 items ranging from a black dress to a rucksack to a section of shoes, some white sneakers and a baseball cap. There was no information about customer service or how to get in touch with them in the search results.
- The search engine of a top fashion retailer produced a list of options (chat, Facebook and Twitter) about how to get in touch with them and their hours of service.
- The search engine of another top fashion retailer produced an even more extensive set of contact options with some self-service options tailored towards solving popular queries like where’s my order and how to return an item.
- Putting the same query into the search engine of a major clothing and homeware brand produced a message that read, “Oops! The page you were looking for doesn’t exist. You may have mistyped the address, or the page may have moved.” Curiously, if you go back and type in ‘help’ into the onsite search bar, then you are offered a page with an extensive set of contact and self-service options.
- Finally, the onsite search engine of a major sports-fashion retail company produced some even more curious results. As I started to type ‘customer service’ into the search bar, it started to produce a couple of predictive suggestions and a number of associated results i.e. customer help (16) and customer support (148). Encouraged, I clicked on both of these suggestions only to find that they produced a seemingly random set of catalogue items ranging from crop tops to gel insoles to tracksuits and various trainers (sneakers). I then went back to see what would happen if I searched for ‘customer service’ only. However, that query produced another seemingly random, but this time much bigger selection of items from their catalogue. I should point out that, in any of these searches, there was no sight of anything that was remotely related to customer service, help or support. Now, thinking that this might have been some sort of oversight of sorts and, possibly, a similar situation to that I uncovered in No. 4, I typed a simple ‘help’ into the site’s search bar, and it produced……yet another, but this time even bigger and different, list of items from their catalogue.
Now, I am sure you will agree that’s a very mixed bag of results, to say the least.
But, just to show how ridiculous this situation really is, I went to a major search engine and typed in ‘customer service’, and the brand name of the major sports-fashion retail company mentioned in Number 5. Guess what happened? The search engine presented the relevant page and contact details right at the top of the list of results.
The fact that the majority of my small research sample of online retailers couldn’t respond in a meaningful way to a simple search request on their own website feels like both a problem and a significant missed opportunity.
Patrick Martin, General Manager, Service Solutions at Coveo, an AI-powered search technology provider, believes that this situation comes about because “The digital experience is still all siloed and disjointed for many brands, and this adds a lot of (unnecessary) friction to a customer’s journey before they can actually get any meaningful assistance.”
He also believes that the emergence of generative AI is going to further highlight these onsite search deficiencies.
Despite some commentators suggesting that generative AI will lead to the end of search, Martin disagrees and suggests that “Search is not going to go away. But, in fact, what we’re going to see is a shift in customer expectations. As people get more and more exposed to these conversational models or conversational experiences, the search box will evolve to being an intent box.”
As such, brands will harness technology, like Coveo’s Relevance Cloud, to better understand a customer’s intent, using it to serve up relevant results (lists, generated answers/articles etc) based on a contextual understanding of what a customer is seeking to do or the question that they are posing.
For example, if a customer types a query like ‘How do I synchronize my Bluetooth Logitech mouse to my Macbook?’ then they will be presented with a generated answer from ‘grounded’ and ‘verified’ sources seeking to answer their question, whereas if they only type a specific term, like ‘Logitech Mouse’ then the technology will deduce that they’re browsing or shopping and produce a list of relevant results like what is currently available in stock.
As customers become more and more used to these conversational models or conversational experiences, the absence of an effective onsite search experience, where the brand contextually understands what they are trying to do, is going to become increasingly noticeable and damaging for brands.
Digital experiences have for too long suffered from a largely disjointed and siloed approach. This is not sustainable, and the stakes look set to get higher. Brands need to get their houses in order if they are to stay in the race.