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Sunday Sitdown: Howard Cohn on how robots, avatars help shoppers

Howard Cohn. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

For Howard Cohn, the road to robots started with trying to figure out a quicker way to make good pancakes. Now, Cohn, who lives and works in Wilmette, is retail chief for the consulting firm Sutherland Global, which helps retailers figure out when and where to use robots, drones and avatars to reach shoppers. He spoke with reporter Sandra Guy. A condensed transcript follows.

Question: The rise of the robot — what’s your take?

Answer: Sutherland has developed technology that automates customer service. It uses avatars — virtual assistants. The avatars are programmed to read or listen to text, so they understand a customer’s request. They then access information about the customer based on the shopper’s interactions with that retailer in stores, online, through social media or on the phone. The avatar can respond in a way personalized for that shopper. It helps resolve customer complaints, improve satisfaction and create loyalty.

The technology can also help companies considering drones to deliver products for the “on-demand anywhere, anytime I want it” customer. Robots working in warehouses can hand products to the drones, and the drones deliver those products within hours.

When customers need more help than avatars can provide (or customers just want to talk with a live person), the technology transfers the customer to a human, who receives the information gathered to that point.

Q: Your company isn’t a software company per se. But you develop analytics that mine data — a hot-button issue because it digs deep into information about people when they shop online.

A: Retailers have always said it’s crucial to “know your customer.” This is the 2016 version of how to do that. Rather than highlight products on sale, retailers now focus more on how to enhance the customer experience.

Think about when you visit websites and see a retail offering targeted for you based on how you’ve shopped previously. This already happens online. What we’re doing is creating a way for it to also happen with customer service.

We’re giving agents more information about customers – what they bought, when and how, plus the communication they prefer and what has helped when they have complaints.

Q: Your first job involved making pancakes. Even in the 1980s, you were figuring out what people wanted before they knew themselves. How did that work?

A: I started my career in the 1980s at General Mills, part of the product management team. We were trying to find a way to help people make better pancakes quicker. Customers had told us in focus groups they wanted it. We figured out a way to put pancake mix in a container, so people had to only add water, pour it out and get a pancake — the right size — every time.

It led to the development of a simpler way to make pancakes that’s still sold nationwide — Bisquick Shake ’n Pour. It was a way to personalize things based on what consumers wanted.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: On the weekend, I like to golf and work out at the gym. I like drama and action-adventure movies. I enjoy pop music, like Top 40. My favorite kids’ song is “Puff the Magic Dragon” — it has been since my childhood.

I have three grown kids. My oldest daughter teaches at Murphy Elementary School in Chicago. My son is a consultant for a top-five consulting firm. And my youngest daughter goes to the University of Southern California, majoring in engineering and international relations.