Over the past few years, new models of affordable and highly maneuverable consumer-grade drones have begun swarming the skies.
They’re flying illegally over Manhattan, obstructing firefighters in southern California, saving surfers from great white sharks, and capturing stunning footage of tropical paradises. Views that were once only obtainable from hitching a ride on a plane or helicopter can now be enjoyed by anyone.
But these small, remote-controlled aerial platforms can do more than record video: they can also deliver items from a retail store or warehouse to your front door.
In June, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that they plan to officially approve the rules and regulations for commercial drone activity within one year, potentially enabling armadas of corporate-branded drones to invade the cities and suburbs of America. In China, drones flown by eCommerce giant Alibaba’s shipping company, SF Express, have already been making test deliveries since 2013, and Alibaba began trial deliveries to 450 customers this past spring. The German shipping company DHL is deploying drones that can withstand the high winds and rain of the North Sea. And pizzerias in Russia and India have been experimenting as well, claiming successful deliveries similar to those demonstrated by Domino’s Pizza in the U.K.:
New customer experience touchpoints like these don’t come along every day, and the technology raises a number of intriguing questions about the future of the retail shopping experience—as well as the contact center solutions that may need to be in place if anything goes wrong.
Evolving the Ecommerce Experience
Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest company that can’t wait to use this new customer engagement “channel” is Amazon, whose Prime Air drone service promises to deliver purchases to customers within 30 minutes or less. In March, Amazon criticized the FAA for taking too long to grant approval for U.S. drone tests, explaining that the U.S. risked falling behind other countries in this area, although it hasn’t stopped them from conducting flight tests in the other countries they operate within. And some U.S. retailers have been drone-delivering their products—ranging from beer to, um, other things—even without the FAA’s approval.
But all of that means that it’s only a matter of time before drone deliveries become ubiquitous worldwide. And once everyone expects a half-hour drone delivery, how will it change the customer experience? What will happen to traditional retail stores as eCommerce outpaces them even more with superior speed and convenience? When everything from shoes to milk can be ordered with one tap on a smartphone and arrive on your doorstep a few minutes later, will you even need to leave the house anymore?
Or will your local grocery store just need to unleash its own drone fleet in order to compete?
Unmanned Aerial Customer Service
In any event, whether a drone is zipping your way on behalf of a transnational eCommerce behemoth or a tiny mom-and-pop shop across town, the possibility of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) dropping packages at your home raises a number of concerns:
- What happens if a drone delivers to the wrong address? Can another drone be summoned to pick up returns?
- What happens if someone is standing on the porch when a drone releases its cargo? And what if the cargo is a hardcover copy of the 1,079-page Infinite Jest?
- Will the drones have safety mechanisms in place to prevent collisions with power lines, clotheslines, and other drones?
- What if a drone runs out of fuel or otherwise falls from the sky?
- Will enterprise contact centers need to staff dedicated Drone Departments ready to field complaints, call ambulances, and deploy mechanical engineers?
- Will contact center software need to be optimized for drone service, automatically scanning all social media mentions, live chat and phone call transcripts, and customer emails to ensure that all drone problems get dealt with immediately and don’t blow up into a PR crisis?
The FAA estimates that commercial drone use will become a $90 billion dollar industry over the next decade, as everyone from Sony to Google works to get in on the ground floor of this low-cost, high-efficiency technology. While safety concerns abound, there’s tremendous potential indeed for drones to dramatically expedite shipping times and streamline the customer experience for almost every industry—assuming, of course, that the right customer service solutions are in place to ensure that the technology solves more problems than it creates.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, for one, is optimistic. As he said on an episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes in 2013, after unveiling the Prime Air project to the world, “It will work, and it will happen, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”