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Cognitive services. For the uninitiated, the name sounds like it could be a regimen for keeping your brain sharp and functioning.
But as a growing number of wholesaler-distributors are learning, cognitive services really are tools that can keep your business sharp and functioning at its best, providing that great customer experience we’ve been talking about.
Cognitive services refers to a collection of machine learning, or artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms that allow businesses, even small businesses with limited resources, to take full advantage of the benefits AI can deliver. They allow your apps, websites and chatbots to see, hear, speak, understand and interpret customer needs through natural methods of communication.
For distributors’ purposes, some of the most beneficial cognitive-services-driven functions are:
Vision. A virtual assistant like Cortana can “look at” an image and correctly identify it. Not only can a virtual assistant identify the image, it can tell you about similar items. For example, if you click on a picture of an electric motor and ask Cortana what it is, she will use the vision cognitive service to tell you it’s an electric motor. Then, she will find other images she believes are related. She can do that even when the items in the image are different colors, bear different logos or are partially obscured by text.
Eventually, as the system is fed more images and more information about those images, Cortana will be able to view that image and tell you the price, what competitors charge for it, that it is a 300-horsepower motor that runs at a particular number of amps, and even the current required to run it. The implications? One is that a customer can take a picture of a part or piece of equipment in their plant, upload it and be taken to the best place to purchase it. All without calling a distributor sales rep.
Language. We all know that Cortana – and her sisters Siri and Alexa – can understand and respond when we talk to them. What is less obvious to consumers and casual users is that thanks to language services, Cortana can convert text to speech, and vice versa. What’s more, the language capabilities embedded in cognitive services means that we can use speech to identify and authenticate individuals. For distributors, that means you and your customers can communicate, and buy and sell product entirely hands-free, using voice-recognition technology.
This technology can also recognize and interpret sentiment. So, if you tell a potential customer that a motor is $12,000, and the response is merely “wow,” it knows whether that’s a negative wow, as in “that’s too expensive,” or an enthusiastic wow, as in “great, I’ll take it!” and respond accordingly.
Knowledge. Microsoft can now take those reams of documentation your customers may have collecting dust on their shelves and present it through their phone or a website, allowing them to get the answer in mere seconds with a simple typed or verbal question – such as, “What air-compressor size do I need for this drill?” What’s this mean for a distributor? It puts easy-to-access information in the hands of the customers – which is where they want it to be. They don’t have to call a rep or page through a manual, saving the distributor and the customer valuable time.
Having a tool tied to your business that your customer can look to for the answers they may need, no matter where they’re working, will result in increased customer satisfaction. You’ve also made them stickier, making them less likely to go to the competition.
This technology is amazing, but its value to businesses, particularly distributors, goes well beyond simply adding a gee-whiz factor to your business. When companies use cognitive services, the result is significant cost savings, and an increase in revenue. As this technology becomes increasingly widespread, forward-thinking distributors can’t afford to be without it.
Matt Petersen is a Senior Director of Industry Solutions for ENAVATE and has spent his entire career in the enterprise software industry. Matt was a founding member of the SAP for Wholesale Distribution Industry Business unit and in 2014, he joined Microsoft to lead the U.S. Dynamics Retail and Wholesale Distribution Industry practice.
Matt has a Bachelor's Degree in Economics from the University of Illinois in Urbana - Champaign and a Certificate in Distribution Management from Texas A&M as well as a Certification from INSEAD in Business Strategy and Financial Acumen.