Office supplies company Staples Inc. is wising up its Easy Button to help business customers perform more functions and at a faster clip. The company is testing adding IBM Watson technology to enable office managers to press the button for everything from re-ordering coffee to finding a printer technician’s number, to ordering pizza for the office, Faisal Masud, chief technology officer for Staples, said in an interview at the National Retail Federation Big Show in New York City Monday.
IBM’s Watson uses an algorithm that learns when it’s exposed to new data, so it does not have to be explicitly programmed by an individual—a process called machine learning—which enables it to engage in a dialogue with people, learning over time how to improve its answers.
Staples is testing the Easy Button technology, which looks a lot like the office version of Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa or Alphabet Inc.’s Google Home, with five businesses in Austin, Texas. It plans to extend the test to more than 100 businesses by the middle of the year and fully roll out the service by year’s end, Masud says.
Staples sells online to businesses of 10 or more employees through its North American Commercial, or NAC, sites StaplesAdvantage.com and Quill.com; to companies through specially branded websites, and to small firms and individual consumers through Staples.com. Staples Advantage is No. 22 in the 2017 B2B E-Commerce 300.
In March Staples announced its Staples Easy System, which lets employees of its customers order Staples products and services by email, mobile app or text message. Staples Business Advantage is using machine learning and artificial intelligence to speed up the ordering process through its automated Easy System and make recommendations using algorithms developed for the website.
In addition to facilitating simpler interactions with customers, cognitive capabilities built into the Easy Button system from IBM Watson and Staples will help Staples learn more about a business’ preferences over time, including its preferred products and quantities. Eventually, the system will be able to make product and service recommendations based on the customer’s current needs, the retailer says. Businesses also can view and play back all requests received from the Easy Button, allowing the customer and Staples to listen to captured audio, review submissions from a desktop or mobile device, and verify orders.
Staples has been working with IBM to add Watson technology to its Easy Button for about a year. For now users must speak to the button and then log on to a Staples dashboard on their desktop computer to retrieve answers. Soon the button will be able to engage in dialogue with an office manager or administrative assistant when he speaks into it, eliminating the need for an employee to use his computer, Masud says. A small team in Staples’ Seattle-based Development Lab is working on the Easy Button project, Masud says.
In testing the button, Staples has found employees asking it to complete tasks and answer questions that extend far beyond Staples-related orders. To deliver on those requests, Staples is working to offer more information.
“At first we thought [employees] would just use it to order more supplies, like more coffee or paper,” he says. “But we found people asking it to remember things like the office Wi-Fi password or asking for the weather.”
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