by Peter Johnston

How Noel Leeming retooled its digital assistant for the pandemic

Sep 09, 2020
Enterprise ApplicationsRetail IndustrySoftware Development

The Nola digital assistant started as an in-store kiosk but was made into an online chatbot as the lockdown closed stores, and pushed customers to the web.

Dylan weymouth, noel leeming/the warehouse group
Credit: The Warehouse Group

Like their global counterparts, New Zealand retailers are accelerating their digital agendas to keep customers engaged and loyal. Noel Leeming, a 76-store subsidiary of the Warehouse Group, is at the forefront of the move from in-store to online shopping, accelerated greatly by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The consumer electronics and appliance retailer originally developed its digital assistant Nola as an in-store customer service tool, but then pivoted to making it an online chatbot when the first lockdown took place in March 2020. This means the business can handle changes in lockdown levels, as was demonstrated when Auckland was recently placed into Level 3 lockdown.

Dylan Weymouth, business operations lead at the Warehouse Group, says Noel Leeming’s Nola digital assistant is a key part of its plans to deliver a multi-channel experience. “In retail today, tolerance for poor service is lower than it’s ever been. Customers expect things to be simple and easy; otherwise, you’re at risk of losing them. For me, utopia is getting to a point where we deliver frictionless shopping, making it so easy to interact with us whether on the web, instore or on an app,” he says.

Nola’s origins in the physical store

Partnering with local firms Ambit AI and UneeQ Digital Humans, the concept for Nola began in 2019 as an in-store feature at Noel Leeming’s signature store in Newmarket, Auckland. Noel Leeming wanted to create a ‘wow’ experience for customers, conveying a forward-thinking brand but also delivering useful information.

Placed at the entrance to the store and aided with a microphone, Nola asks how it can help, and customers respond by asking for product availability, store location, opening hours and more. During the conversation, Nola appears to be listening, leaning in slightly and looking interested. Like a good trainee team member, Nola refers to in-store staff if it can’t help with more detailed requests. “Team members are alerted via a mobile app when, after talking with Nola first, customers needed more specialised help”, says Weymouth.

“We wanted our customers front and centre with Nola as they arrived, interacting with the human-friendly tech as they soaked in the new store. At opening, Nola was ‘going off’—the best day saw over 3,000 interactions and within a few months she had posed for nearly 3,000 selfies with customers,” Weymouth says. “Nola quickly reached 100,000 in-store interactions—she was an immediate hit”.

The pandemic put Nola out of work—until it was moved online

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, stores closed in response to the initial nationwide lockdown, leaving Nola momentarily out of a job. The website and call centre “went ballistic” with customer interactions, Weymouth says.

To pivot Nola to where customers needed it the most, Noel Leeming worked with partner Ambit AI to rapidly put Nola online. “We spun this up in two weeks to help with the surge in online demand. Online, Nola was doing 1,000 customer interactions per day, giving customers a direct, efficient route to what they needed. Soon after going live, we enabled ‘chat handover’, with Nola referring customers to human agents to help with product availability, sales and services. This transfer of queries to human agents kept our customers engaged during the process, which also kept our staff busy adding value even when stores were closed. It was a win-win”, Weymouth recalls.

“Nola serviced three times as many queries daily than the week before the August 2020 resurgence lockdown. We were stoked to offer customers this channel from the get-go. While Nola was busy fronting customer queries, staff who had been rostered in stores were instead able to focus on online deliveries and fulfilling our one-hour Click&Collect service. They also helped with the customer care centre, inventory checks and stocktakes”, Weymouth says.

Next up: Noel Leeming will soon add the ability for customers to check their order status through Nola, he says.

What CIOs can learn from the Nola experience

CiOs considering deployment of their own digital assistant should keep the following lessons from Nola’s journey in mind.

Find the right partners, adapting with them as the business need changes. Tim Warren, CEO of Ambit AI, says, “The partnership brought together three parties, each with specific expertise. Together we were able to find innovative ways of meeting Noel Leeming’s customers’ needs”. In tough times, having the right partners becomes even more important. During the lockdown, the platform was adapted, as was the partnership, to deliver outcomes more attuned to the needs of customers shopping from home.

ROI comes from a focus on the holistic customer experience, not just on the technology. From the start, Nola’s value was delivered as an important part of a wider customer experience strategy comprised of the physical store, a service-oriented culture of team working, integrated product information, and ready product availability supported by smart operational processes. Nola’s success was helped by combining each of these elements.

Be prepared to pivot early and often, sensing and responding to changing needs. Nola’s conversational flows were altered in the first 24 hours of deployment, learning from early interactions with customers. This agility hasn’t stopped, with the ‘check my order status’ feature soon to be added and conversational flows being further enriched as Nola learns more about what customers want. Nola’s value increases with every insight-driven enhancement.

Peter Johnston does business strategy, transformation and leadership innovation based on his experiences in business consulting globally. Johnston launched and led IBM iX in New Zealand, one of the world’s largest digital consulting agencies.