The trial, which one Staples Business Depot manager described as "one of the largest pilots that we've ever done," has been running for three years. It involves one video kiosk—with a high-resolution Web camera, microphone, scanner and a touch-screen—at each store that is networked to 10 kiosks at a Toronto office with customer service reps.
Let's say a customer wants to create a business card. The customer walks up to the kiosk and has a video conversation with the customer service rep, who walks the customer through the available options. The customer will then be prompted to scan in a logo, while the agent watches on the screen.
The agent remotely instructs the scanner to output the results to a server he controls. He is then able to call up the image, import it into a graphics program and create a sample of the business card for approval right away. The customer can inspect and make changes before the file is finalized and payment is requested.
The agent can't see any of the identifiable elements of the card, but the agent will see the authentication at the end, telling him the customer has successfully paid and that the final files can be pushed to the customer.
"The agent's sitting in front of two large monitors" and can drag information from a screen for working on the project to another screen that "pushes" files to the customer, said James Pelrine, who had been the Staples process improvement manager during much of the trial and is now a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt Designate at Staples. "The agent decides what (the customer) sees and what they don't see," Pelrine said.
Reaction to the prototype kiosks has been generally favorable, Pelrine said, other than initially startled consumers in some rural locations.
"We had people complain that people were talking to them through the box," he said, adding "this probably lends itself to more metropolitan markets."
One of the initial challenges in selecting the trial stores was making sure that firewall preferences at those stores could be changed to permit the 2-way communications across the network.
Bart Trentadue, a member of the Staples IS team that has been handling the trial, said security precautions were taken, including locking down key firewalls at both store and corporate points. "Store connections are encrypted," Trentadue said. "The Database/SIP servers reside in a locked down DMZ environment."
Staples' Pelrine said the chain is allowing the experiment to continue to run into early next year. "We're going to sit for six more months before we make a final decision," he said. Although he said the final decision is unclear, Pelrine did reference some powerful ROI figures. "Stores that have video agents are seeing positive comp sales," he said. "In those stores, business card sales are up double digits."
Staples officials wouldn't discuss pricing of the trial, although similar trials have involved very little—and sometimes no—cash investment from the retailer, with vendors involved in the trial covering the initial costs to make it easier for the retailer to approve the trial.
If fully deployed, though, much of the cost would be spent on software licensing for a vendor called Experticity, which offers the software behind the 2-way kiosk project in a SaaS model.
The CEO and founder of Experticity, D.L. Baron, argues that the kiosks as deployed by Staples in Canada are using just a small percentage of the capabilities. The Staples devices, for example, rely on the store's existing card authorization devices to process payments even though the kiosks could directly handle those payments.
The system could be used to show pre-created demo videos, but the customer service person could hear if the customer asks any questions and the rep could answer them while the video is playing, with the rep remotely controlling volume and could rewind or fast-forward the video, as needed.
The kiosks could also be used to schedule and dispatch installation crews. But language and topic expertise is where Baron sees these kiosks have the greatest potential impact. If a department wanted reps who spoke a particular language or had background in a very specialized area, it's a lot easier to find that talent if the kiosk allows them to be based anywhere in the world, including telecommuting.
Staples' Pelrine agreed, pointing to a recent employment boom in Alberta "making it tough to retain associates. It is certainly difficult to attract associates to work, let alone in a specialty area such as printing" where employees often become bored.
Another potential advantage that Baron spoke of was CRM and employee supervision. The CRM comes from having hours of video of everything a customer asked for, smiled at and got upset with.
The employee supervision comes from having even more hours of video of every customer interaction from that employee. Will employees be more attentive to customers and more strictly observant of company policies if they know that every action is being recorded?