Is Staples’ Watson-powered Easy System the future of B2B sales?

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When Amazon Echo launched in 2014, some questioned its utility. Fast forward to 2016 and awareness of Echo, which can now be used to order physical and digital products, has soared, suggesting that the future of conversational commerce might not be dominated by chatbots but rather AI-powered assistants that consumers can talk to.

While much of the focus of the nascent conversational commerce market has focused on the B2C opportunity, the B2B opportunity could be just as significant. And one of the largest office supply retailers in the world, Staples, is already gearing up to exploit that opportunity.

As detailed by The Wall Street Journal, Staples has developed a technology solution called Easy System that aims to let companies order their office supplies by voice. Easy System is powered by IBM’s cognitive computing platform, Watson, which offers natural language processing and machine learning capabilities.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Staples’ Easy System uses both technologies to make ordering office supplies as easy as apple pie:

The Easy System users initiate by pressing a red “easy” button is designed to learn with each interaction…The cognitive computing scheme behind Watson lets Staples’ algorithms learn the habits of individual customers. Eventually, for example, the system will understand that a customer’s reference to “blue pens” means an 18-pack of Pentel ballpoints.

According to Faisal Masud, Staples’ EVP of global ecommerce, the goal is as straightforward as it is audacious: “We want to become the right-hand for the office administrator.”

To accomplish that, Staples says it will begin testing Easy System with select customers before the year is over. Each customer’s contracts and business process rules will be set up in Easy System to ensure that orders adhere to customers’ policies and budgets.

Staples will also look to use Easy System to help it sell office supplies that it doesn’t carry. When an order contains a product Staples doesn’t have, the company will offer to find it and deliver it.

Are chatbots a bad investment?

While it remains to be seen whether Staples’ new effort will be a success or not, solutions like Easy System and Amazon Echo hint that companies investing heavily in conversational commerce through chatbots might quickly find themselves behind the curve.

Not only have some early chatbot efforts failed to live up to expectations, which isn’t surprising given the UX challenges, given the power of voice and the sophisticated technology behind voice-enabled solutions like Easy System and Echo, it’s entirely possible that the future of conversational commerce will be based around real conversation, not chat.

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