Meal-Kit & Grocery Delivery Companies Need AI More than ever to Serve Customer Care as Opportunity and Challenges Mount

Written by Can Ozdoruk on Apr 9, 2020

Leveraging AI to automate and augment customer service can keep meal-kit and grocery delivery customers who have discovered the value of dinner at your doorstep happy and entice trial users to stick around when better times return 

Stay-at-home orders and social distancing recommendations in Covid-19’s wake has created a huge demand for meal-kit and grocery delivery companies. These companies are dealing with growing pains associated with ballooning customer bases, as well as supply chain and delivery issues. The result is customer service teams underwater with tickets and customer requests, with resolutions taking days, or weeks. 

When the customer service teams of meal and grocery delivery services are stretched, AI can automate and augment customer care to keep customers satisfied and coming back for more. 

Practically overnight, the meal kit and grocery delivery industry changed 

Consumers like myself agree. Right now, meal-kits make perfect sense: I can no longer go eat in a restaurant; it’s exciting to get dinner at my door that the whole family can help in preparing;  I’m bored and need at-home activities; and limiting grocery store visits is very appealing. And this is exactly why I signed up for one of these companies after years of consideration and tempting promo codes showing up in my mailbox. 

And, I’m not alone. 

With COVID-19 changing consumer behavior, companies like Purple Carrot1 and BlueApron2 are citing a “sharp increase” in demand, while Sunbasket CEO has referred to it as “dramatic”. HomeChef talks about an “unprecedented increase in orders1.”

 On the surface, this surge in demand looks incredible for these companies, as evident in stock prices springing up while most other industries rollercoaster at best. Hello Fresh, in one example, is “set to make about three quarters of the profit that analysts had anticipated for the full year” in just three months3

Meal kit companies, however, are facing incredible challenges as they race to meet this growing demand, including: 

1. A strained, disparate supply chain

The supply chain issue is twofold –  “unforeseen disruptions” and difficult ingredient sourcing as well as new demand. This results in last-minute cancellations, unexpected ingredient swaps, limited menu options and companies quickly selling out of popular items. Customers are taking to social media to complain about recipes being sold out on the day they were released, or extra charges for certain items.

2. Shipping delays

The logistics infrastructure in the United States is under strain as workers become sick and hours are limited. Just look at the golden standard of reliable and fast delivery: Amazon Prime, which previously delivered in one or two days, is now as long as a month4. In another example, Thrive Market, an online retailer of dry goods, frozen meat and seafood and wine, reported an up to two-week delay in their deliveries during March 2020. 

The uncertain environment has even led to companies like UPS and FedEx suspending Money Back Guarantee for all shipments to any destination.  

As a personal example, on March 26th, I have scheduled a delivery from Farmstead to be delivered by April 9th. On April 8th, while I was making room in my pantry for fresh fruits and vegetables, I learned it’s not coming the next day. It’s arriving… wait for it…. on May 10th! 

3. Staffing challenges

Scaling a team to manage distribution for increased demand does not happen overnight. In a Facebook post, Linda Findley Kozlowski, president and CEO of Blue Apron, said: “Within the span of 48 hours, we saw an increase in orders that surpassed the staff we had in place to fulfill this higher-than-expected demand, and this caused some challenges in our fulfillment process.” 

While demand is great, these challenges are leading to companies like Sun Basket and Gusto not currently accepting new customers, instead putting people on a waiting list. [As seen on their website April 7, 2020]. 

How AI can enable meal-kit and grocery delivery companies to provide exceptional customer service

Meal-kits and grocery delivery companies need to have a healthy balance between keeping their loyal, long-term customers happy and delighting new customers.  

Loyal customers are becoming frustrated with delays, limited options, partially fulfilled orders, missed delivery windows and slow responses. New customers, having not experienced service under normal circumstances, are less likely to stick around if they don’t get the experience that they expect. 

In an industry where churn is already high, customer service now is more critical than ever. When things go wrong with distribution and supply, often outside of a company’s control, the way to build brand love is by being always-available, ultra-responsive and helpful in moments of need.   

Think about the circumstances that people are reaching out today. Customers who were expecting orders are getting last-minute cancellations. They have requests to update addresses and meals. Orders are being delivered with only a fraction of items on a list. Time is of the essence in a lot of these scenarios.  Companies must get back to customers quickly with a personalized and meaningful resolution. 

It’s cost-prohibitive to hire a human-only agent team to scale customer service operations, 24/7, across channels and provide the timely support people expect. By adopting AI, companies can automate, augment and scale excellent customer care. Companies that use AI alleviate stress on customer support teams and provide superior C/X in these primary ways:  

AUTOMATE: Full resolution of repeatable tickets in seconds 
As Gartner suggests, during Covid-19, companies need to “use chatbots in digital channels to address the most commonly asked questions to offload volumes to service agents5.”

Leveraging historical data, AI can be trained to automatically resolve everyday, repeatable customer tickets. By integrating with a CRM, AI can offer full resolution, just like a human would, for things like address, timing and order size updates. This offloads mundane work from human agents, who can focus solely on critical, high-touch customer needs. 

ESCALATE: Flawless hand-off to human agents based on issue, sentiment and customer
When a complex, new or unique case arises, AI can immediately route a customer to a human agent within the original thread or interface. AI can also quickly hand-off conversations based on sentiment (i.e. the customer is angry or upset) and based on customer profile (i.e. always routing VIP, loyal or high-value customers to a human agent). 

PERSONALIZE: Tailor every conversation to the individual 
Integrating with back-end systems enables AI to curate data to help agents work faster and smarter. In real-time, AI can pull information to help resolve issues on an individual level – whether it’s previous orders, diet restrictions, ingredients, payments or credits.

REPLY: Engage beyond automated emails
Throughout the customer journey, companies send numerous automated emails, whether it’s a sign-up or confirmation or prompt to make any last-minute changes an order.  These emails, though, are often one-way communication. If a customer responds, there is often a substantial lag in response time. By leveraging an email AI agent, companies can automatically respond to questions asked in reply to these emails beyond a canned auto-reply. 

CANCEL and COURT: Seamless cancellations and targeted incentives
Traditionally, the industry has high churn rates: reaching double digits every quarter6. Churn is inevitable and companies need to make it a seamless, easy process to keep the door open for potential future business. If a cancel request comes in, AI agents can integrate with back-end systems to fully resolve cancellation requests. AI can also recognize which customers are loyal and profitable and offer an incentive in an effort to keep a customer, or route to a human agent for VIP treatment.  

ENGAGE: Be available across every channel 
Customers don’t just seek resolution on private emails, 1:1 messaging or website chat. Often, they take to  complaint channels like Facebook and Twitter to seek help, commenting on posts or tweets with an issue. A single AI can be deployed across every care and complaint channel to help agents respond quickly, apologize if needed, and move a conversation to a private channel. 

UNDERSTAND: Identify new issues quickly 
AI can identify trending issues and alert customer service managers when something new arises. For instance, if, out of the blue, a lot of customers are asking about coupon and promo code issues, AI can alert CS managers who can see if there is a technical issue or develop a response that can be widely distributed as other customers inevitably reach out. 

ANTICIPATE: Scale proactive communication
87% of customers want to be proactively reached out to by a company for customer service related issues7. If you get out in front of issues as soon as you become aware, you are able to give customers time to modify or cancel orders, or simply adjust expectations. Reaching out to customers immediately using human agents, though, is time consuming and often results in delayed communication. AI can automate messages and alerts, while also responding immediately to follow up questions. Not convinced yet?  Over a 12 month period, proactive customer service can lead to a 20-30% reduction in call center calls — lowering call center operating costs by as much as 25% 7.

Customer service issues are not as scarce as grocery store shelves these days. Meal switches, missing ingredients and items, delayed deliveries, reduced selection and issues with coupons are just a few.  While there are many factors outside of a company’s control, meal-kits and grocery delivery companies have 100% control over the customer service they provide. 

Let AI turn short-term demand into long-term relationships

Many speculate that the surge in demand will die down as social distancing guidelines loosen and restaurants start running in full capacity. If meal-kit and grocery delivery companies focus on the overall customer experience during this time, they have the opportunity to rewrite the future of their business.

AI can help you address today’s challenges and scale as your customer needs and business evolve. 

Let’s get started today to respond to your customers immediately with effortless resolutions. After-all, these are the key ingredients to happy, healthy, long-term customer relationships.  

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