May Ng is Senior Director of Customer Experience Technology at 1-800-Flowers.com, where she leads product development initiatives focused on VOC and self-service automation. With experience leading digital strategy client-side and agency-side, May has also held leadership roles at the National Basketball Association and Starwood Hotels. She earned her BA from New York University and can be found on LinkedIn here.
May says that this year, people are looking for ways to connect with one another more than ever. When families, friends and communities can’t physically be together to connect and celebrate, they’re eager for new ways to show the important people in their lives that they’re thinking of them.
The 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Inc. family of brands includes delivery options for flowers, prepared meals, fruit or, host Jim Freeze’s preference, cookies, to help anyone celebrate from afar. May’s team continues to see rising demand for gift-giving nationwide as travel and gathering restrictions stretch on.
As Senior Director of Customer Experience Technology, May is responsible for leveraging technology and automation to better meet customer needs. In her role, she is responsible for online chat, developing self-service functionality and the company’s voice automation platform. As a brand that’s known by its phone number, it was critical that the company integrated AI and automation into its phone system to provide intuitive, always-on service options. For this, the company turned to an Intelligent Virtual Assistant (IVA), provided by Interactions.
With the IVA, customers can call 1-800-Flowers.com at any hour of the day to change the delivery date of their order, request a receipt or cancel an order without having to wait for an agent. The platform can also respond to a number of frequently asked questions, allowing customers to handle most inquiries on their schedule, and without having to speak with an agent.
May shares that when it comes to implementing AI, customer convenience has always been a top priority—a value evident throughout the platform. Whenever a customer calls, for example, the order status associated with that phone number is automatically pulled up so that customers don’t need to wait for an update. In fact, May says most order status calls last less than 60 seconds. This phone number recognition also immediately pulls up that caller’s order history, allowing the company to create more personalized experiences to their returning customers.
The IVA’s natural language processing (NLP) also plays a critical role in enhancing customer convenience. Customers can call from anywhere—a windy parking lot, a noisy household—and the platform expertly interprets what they’re saying, regardless of the speaker’s volume or background noise. This same technology is also capable of understanding complex alphanumeric phrases like email addresses that often stump automated solutions—allowing customers to speak entirely naturally rather than engaging in awkward, robotic speech.
Over the last six months, guidelines and restrictions have evolved seemingly by the minute. As in-person celebrations were canceled, city-dwellers migrated toward the suburbs and college students were sent home, gifts suddenly found themselves on the way to the wrong addresses. These rapid changes required 1-800-Flowers.com to be agile and accommodating—an effort helped along by AI-powered self-service options.
For example, May shares a story of a mother who sent a care package to her daughter who was away at college. When students were suddenly sent home, she needed to quickly modify the order so it didn’t land at an empty dorm room. AI and automation helped manage many of these modification requests, offloading many calls from agents and allowing them to focus on more complex tasks and challenges.
When customer service agents are overwhelmed with call volume, there’s not always time for the meaningful 1:1 connection that can be so important for customer retention. Leveraging AI to manage common, straightforward queries—like order status, receipt requests and delivery date—frees human agents to focus on interpersonal connection, like helping a customer pick the perfect gift for a friend or family member.
EPISODE 15: MAY NG
Jim Freeze Hi! And welcome. I’m Jim Freeze, and this is The ConversAItion, a podcast airing viewpoints on the impact of artificial intelligence on business and society.
Throughout the pandemic, celebrations have looked a lot different than they did before. No in-person parties, no in-store shopping for the perfect gift. Celebrating someone or something has meant either attending a Zoom party or ordering a gift online.
Today, we’ll unpack the role that AI has played in keeping up with the growing demand for contactless gift-giving. We’re speaking with May Ng, Senior Director of Customer Experience at 1-800-Flowers — an ecommerce retailer well known for making it easy to send flowers, chocolates and a variety of other gifts to friends and family from afar.
Jim Freeze May, welcome to The ConversAItion!
May Ng Thanks, Jim. Thanks for having me on today.
Jim Freeze We’re thrilled to have you on. And so I guess I’d like to start by, before we get into some of the 1-800-Flowers specific stuff, could you tell us a little bit about your passion for technology and your history of working in tech?
May Ng Sure. Although I’ve spent much of my career in marketing roles, I’ve always been fascinated with tech because it’s based on logic, KPIs and constant improvement. And these fundamentals, I really believe in. That’s why I started working in digital in the late 90s, in the early days of the Internet. It was so exciting to be on this forefront of this new emerging technology that made information so accessible.
I spent over 10 years at startups and agencies, specifically digital agencies, managing software and website development before moving client-side to focus on digital strategy. I spent a few years at the NBA where I transformed 10 international websites from a collection of press releases into revenue generating fan destinations by focusing on analytics data and creating really engaging fan content.
At Starwood hotels, I developed several global platforms that supported over 1000 hotels in 40 languages. I was also responsible for driving ancillary revenue through affiliates, loyalty redemption platforms, and with our in-room marketing technology.
Jim Freeze I love that. I mean, I’m a marketing professional, but I’m a marketing professional and have been in tech so I very much relate to your background. I have to say that I feel like I’ve been following your career, because I’m a huge NBA fan. I’ve stayed at Starwood Hotels. And now we’re going to get into your current role at 1-800-Flowers.
Obviously a leading provider of gifts and flowers with numerous recognizable brands from the namesake 1-800-Flowers to Harry & David, to one of my favorites, Cheryl’s Cookies. I became very familiar with Cheryl’s Cookies, by the way, because I am an Ohio State grad and Cheryl’s was founded in Columbus, so I’m very familiar with that. Big fan of 1-800-Flowers. Could you talk a little bit about what your current role at the company is?
May Ng Sure. As Senior Director of Customer Experience and Technology, I develop functionality to address customer needs across our family of brands using technology and automation. I’m responsible for our online chat platform and for developing self-service functionality like order tracking and order modifications. I also lead our voice automation platform and intelligent virtual assistant, which allows customers who call us to self-service 24/seven without the need for agent support.
Jim Freeze In full disclosure to our listeners, I’m fairly familiar with what you’re doing in terms of your voice automation platform, Interactions provides our technology and our platform to help support that, so we have some familiarity with that. Could you talk about the platform and how 1-800-Flowers uses it to improve customer experience?
May Ng Our customers are used to interacting with us over the phone because our phone number is our name, 1-800-Flowers.com. It was really important for us to integrate AI and automation into our phone systems. When customers call us from a number associated with an order, we use it to automatically look up their order status. Or they can say an email address or an order number, and the system will look up the order status. Customers can also change the delivery date of their order, request a receipt or cancel an order, all without having to wait for an agent. We’ve also developed responses for the most frequently asked questions. This creates a better customer experience by expediting the most common inquiries.
Jim Freeze You know, what’s interesting is you’re highlighting one of the key areas that we hear from a lot of our customers, which is actually, I should say, most of our customers, which is improved customer experience. That being said, it’s not uncommon when we’re talking to new prospects for them to have some apprehensions or concerns about implementing AI powered CX. When you went down this path, were there concerns about implementing AI powered CX?
May Ng We wanted to make sure our automated experience was very intuitive and that it met our customer’s needs and it had to represent our values. So we took great care to pick the right voice talent that sounded natural and reflected our brand voice. Our focus was on developing the functionality customers need the most, and convenience is really key to them. Using data like the incoming phone number to automatically find an order makes the whole customer experience so much better. And most order status calls last less than 60 seconds.
Jim Freeze That’s a great benefit. What additional value does AI provide to your business?
May Ng AI quickly recognizes customer intent using NLP, and it communicates with our systems to eliminate wait times. And it ensures that queries are handled efficiently. AI is also especially efficient and effective at recognizing voice at low volume, when there’s background noise and even in different accents. NLP also understands complex alphanumeric phrases with accuracy, like email addresses. This allows the customer to speak naturally and communicate seamlessly using voice. And using phone number recognition to look up order history allows us to provide personalized service to our returning customers. By leveraging AI to help customers solve these simple queries, we’re freeing up our agents to focus on interactions that really require a human touch, like picking the perfect gift.
Jim Freeze One of the things that I’ve been doing a lot of the podcasts, and I didn’t do it last year because we didn’t have the coronavirus, but now we do—we’re all kind of living through this pandemic. So I’m kind of curious if you could talk a little bit about the way the coronavirus has impacted the gift industry and your business specifically.
May Ng People are looking for ways to connect with each other right now. It’s never been more important or more difficult. And we’ve always been here to help people express, connect and celebrate. Customers are increasingly turning to our family of brands to help them connect with the important people in their lives. And we’ve seen more people sending gifts just because. People are looking for ways to let others know that they’re thinking of them. And we have something for everyone: from flowers and plants, to chocolates, prepared meals, cookies as you said, and fruit.
Jim Freeze I have to have my cookies. So I want to pick up on something you just said, which is an increase in business. So in this pandemic, how has automation played a role in helping you keep up with skyrocketing demand?
May Ng We’re continuing to see a rise in demand nationwide in gifting, but because of certain restrictions that were put in place, we have customers requesting modifications for their orders. For example, we had a mother sending her daughter a care package in college and she needed to reroute the order once all students were sent home. Automation helped us manage these types of requests. All of our team members across the company have worked tirelessly to help our customers express themselves and remain connected during this unprecedented time.
Jim Freeze That’s fantastic. I just have one more question for you which is, how do you envision AI will support your company, 1-800-FLOWERS, five years from now?
May Ng We really envision AI playing an increasingly important role across all departments and functions within our organization. AI can help serve the needs of our customers in more connected and efficient ways. In the near term, the focus is on building out our self-service architecture and integrating that across multiple customer touch points. I’m also really interested in cognitive machine learning and I want to look into that a little bit more. AI can also be a really powerful tool for helping our agents be more effective, especially new and seasonal employees. There’s so much we can do. I can’t wait to see what else we can do with AI.
Jim Freeze I can’t wait either. And so I want to thank you so much, May, for being on The ConversAItion. While AI’s application in customer experience is something that I’m very close to and very passionate about, it’s always so refreshing to hear, and I know our listeners will appreciate it, how companies are benefiting by embracing AI. We really appreciate you coming on the show. Thank you.
May Ng Thank you so much for having me, Jim.
Jim Freeze On our next episode, we’ll be joined by Paul Johansen, the Chief Technology Officer at Edmentum, and we’ll dive into the growing role of AI in educating kids from home.
This episode of The ConversAItion podcast was produced by Interactions, a Boston-area conversational AI company. I’m Jim Freeze, and we’ll see you next time.