Staples brings Watson to digital office assistants

Source: Staples
Oct 31, 2016
Tom Ryan

With the help of artificial intelligence-based IBM Watson, Staples is testing a digital assistant that let’s small and medium-size businesses order products, track shipments and potentially handle many more needs.

The Staples Easy System features a circular “Easy” button — a bit larger than a hockey puck —designed to sit on a desk. Pressing the button elicits a query: “Please tell me what you need?” Customers voice their answers, such as “blue pens” or “Post-it notes” to reorder products, or ask questions, such as “I need to check on my order.” In addition to the button, customers can use a mobile app, which can also respond to voice communication. Text and e-mail options are also available.

Watson’s cognitive capabilities along with Staples’ own internal personalization APIs will help the Staples Easy System learn more about each business’s preferences over time, including preferred products and quantities. Eventually, the system will make recommendations based on the customer’s needs.

Beyond reordering, the integration of additional Watson-related APIs is expected to support tasks such as booking a flight, requesting carpet cleaning, ordering flowers or making dinner reservations. The Easy Button’s “Internet of Things” capabilities could power other applications as well, allowing the system to communicate with other smart devices, like a printer that tells the button when it’s low on toner.

“We want to be the assistant’s assistant,” Staples’ chief digital officer Faisal Masud said last week at the IBM World of Watson conference, according to Computerworld.

In July, Macy’s began testing a mobile tool that enables consumers to get answers to in-store shopper questions from an AI platform developed by Watson. But Staples Easy System appears to be the first application of Watson with a digital assistant.

In homes, neither Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home nor Apple Siri are yet making recommendations based on learnings from users, but advances are coming. Amazon is working on incorporating emotional cues into Alexa’s responses as well as applying the user’s previous comments to subsequent interactions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How much demand do you see for digital personal assistants supporting reorders and other workplace needs? How would you compare the demand for digital assistants at work versus home?

"As of today, I see this technology being far more popular at home than it will be at work, but work applications will follow … and rapidly."
"Customers will underestimate Watson’s power at first, but they’ll soon realize that it’s akin to talking to an expert."
"I’m skeptical on the voice recognition. I have yet to find one that can understand me. I’m not kidding y’all, none of them speak Southern..."

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17 Comments on "Staples brings Watson to digital office assistants"

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Shep Hyken

I’ve written this before in several responses to different articles in RetailWire … The company that can create the most customer convenience will win. The concept of Watson and Staples working together is brilliant. It makes ordering easy. As if you’re talking to someone. The key is no friction, hassle or anything that takes more time than the traditional method of ordering (on the phone, website, etc.). The Easy button reminds me of the Dash button from Amazon, paired with the Amazon Echo. Be it home or business — convenience is a winning concept!

Sterling Hawkins

This is definitely a step in the right direction from Staples, especially given how popular Amazon Alexa and other AI assistants have been in the home. Reaching customers on their terms — where and when they want — via Facebook, Slack, text, email, etc. creates a better and more convenient experience. A better experience means happier customers and happy customers spend more.

Cathy Hotka

Watson’s phenomenal natural language capabilities are going to provide assistance in a number of retail segments, and it makes sense for Staples to tap into it. Customers will underestimate Watson’s power at first, but they’ll soon realize that it’s akin to talking to an expert. Watch for more examples of this soon.

Ryan Mathews

I’m actually fairly bullish on this technology since voice recognition (when it is accurate) is easier than typing. My overarching view of technology is that the simplest, most effective interface wins over time. As of today, I see this technology being far more popular at home than it will be at work, but work applications will follow … and rapidly. The caveat in my mind is that the “right answer” — at home and at work — is a single point of digital contact. I don’t foresee a future in which our desks or end tables are filled by multiple voice-activated devices. As they used to say at the end of the Highlander movies, “In the end, there can only be one.”

Max Goldberg

When digital assistants can do more than order goods and report on their delivery, they will start to come into their own. Until then, they are nice gimmicks simply because it’s easier to tell a machine to order something than it is to go online and place the order. Since all of the items ordered go through Staples, price comparisons cannot be made and companies might significantly overspend for some products. AI devices need to compare prices and shipping options, then offer the user options for purchasing in order to become most useful.

Ken Lonyai

Digital assistants are coming to businesses as well as individuals. The days of repetitive and low-level non-physical tasks being relegated to a junior-level employee are on the verge of being disrupted. Automation, particularly through software, has improved inefficiencies in most industries and for most basic job functions, so there’s no reason to believe that office tasks, be they ordering supplies or performing elemental tasks, would be immune to the technology.

The demand will grow as technology improves and the adoption curve grows, as has been the case with every technology before this.

Bob Amster

The most effective approach for B2B for decades has been to create a captive audience whereby the purchasing agent or enduser only has one easy source from which to order, and one instrument to use. Going back to the days of American Hospital Supply, if the commercial distributor makes it very easy to order from them, and provides a wide range of related products, they have created sort of a captive audience. The Easy button, enhanced with artificial intelligence from Watson, puts Staples in the position of providing a simple button that is smart and will become the customer’s friend. Why would someone order from anyone else?

Doug Garnett

In contrast to others here, I’m a skeptic … in part based on my technology background which includes working some with AI. I’ll just repeat something I’ve noted before: The most sophisticated assistance out there should be coming from Amazon. And yet, in more than a decade of significant buying from Amazon, there have been perhaps two times that Amazon has gotten it right and suggested something meaningful.

Watson’s speech recognition is excellent — but it is in the content beyond speech recognition that we will see the difference. Kudos to Staples for a clever PR announcement. But I just don’t see it turning into a significant shopper advantage.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Come on — how hard is it to order a box of pens or a ream of paper? And with most places offering (at least) next-day delivery, tracking isn’t much of an issue.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Natural language audio assistance will be one the areas of major acceleration in customer service in the near-term. The big news (hats off to Staples) is that retailers are exploiting this enabling capability.

Lee Kent

I love the concept however I’m skeptical on the voice recognition. I have yet to find one that can understand me. I tried to ask Siri to call Ann and she could not, for the world, figure out what I was saying. Did you say call awning? I’m not kidding y’all, none of them speak Southern and I find that very frustrating. Am I the only one? Surely not!

But that’s just my 2 cents.

Shawn Harris

Convenience is key, and it appears that this will make order/reorder capture, payment and tracking easy. Awesome! I believe that we will see more and more use of digital personal assistants taking hold in business — dominated by a handful of companies. Will Staples be one of them? Will they aspire to reach into the home as others such as Amazon, Google and Apple look to make it in the enterprise market with their digital personal assistants?

Matt Schmitt

I applaud Staples for demonstrating innovation in an area ripe for learning. For customers who try the voice-based assistant, I hope the experience is seamless. There will likely still be a lot of going online through the web or mobile app to modify or change order details, and I hope it doesn’t prove to be somewhat frustrating if the process takes longer or adds steps rather than speeding things up.

I’d love to see some voice-based, AI-driven assistance applications tailored to retail employees. There have to be myriad ways to help associates at the store level.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Patricia Vekich Waldron
1 year 21 days ago

I’ve, of course, seen the technology up close and personal. Digital assistants are just the tip of the iceberg for cognitive technologies that augment intelligence and extend human expertise. Systems that understand, learn, reason and interact with humans can make a tremendous impact at home, work, school, in cars and at hospitals.

Ralph Jacobson

What I’ve seen from these and other retailers (e.g, leveraging Watson capabilities is, among other advantages already mentioned, the ability to give “equal billing” to slow sellers and best sellers. With shopping assistants, slow selling items and services are often very appropriate for shoppers’ needs, yet they don’t always receive the visibility they need. These cognitive, machine-learning technologies now enable the slow sellers to bubble up to the top of the shoppers’ lists, and drive greater overall revenue by finding better matches for each shoppers’ searches. Great stuff, indeed.

Lesley Everett

What a fabulous and clever idea to create loyalty to the brand. Anything that makes the mundane tasks easier and more convenient for the end user/client will be a winner. As long as the technology works smoothly, this is all set to create a very positive experience that builds a solid connection between supplier and customer that is difficult to walk away from, even if there is a price differentiation with a alternative supplier.

Dan Frechtling

This is a brilliant brand building concept but a flawed technology concept.

Infusing the Easy Button with intelligence reinforces Staples’s positioning. Rather than something to pound on to vent frustration, the Easy Button now eases mundane tasks like purchasing. Adding Watson (another brand) to the mix wraps Staples within a forward-thinking halo.

Expecting users to add another piece of hardware to their desk is dubious. They already have a keyboard, a screen (likely more than one), a mouse, a deskphone, and their smartphone. If they still use paper (and Staples really hopes they do), they have files, a stapler, and pens vying for space. Now their coffee cup has competition.

Today this is a novelty. It orders post-it notes. It doesn’t do travel, or schedule meetings, or call people in your address book. So it’s not a digital personal assistant yet. It’s a one-hit wonder with a short shelf life unless it does more.

"As of today, I see this technology being far more popular at home than it will be at work, but work applications will follow … and rapidly."
"Customers will underestimate Watson’s power at first, but they’ll soon realize that it’s akin to talking to an expert."
"I’m skeptical on the voice recognition. I have yet to find one that can understand me. I’m not kidding y’all, none of them speak Southern..."

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