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What On Earth Is a Virtual Salesperson?

Updated on February 7, 2013
Online shopping can be hard without any help!
Online shopping can be hard without any help! | Source

I'm going to start out with a confession here: I'm a needy shopper. It's true. When I get into a store, I feel as lost and overwhelmed as a kid at Disneyworld who got separated from his parents. And if I'm shopping for someone else, God help me—I'm terrible at choosing gifts. I bought my mother "50 Shades of Grey" because I thought it was a history of monochromatic artwork, for crying out loud!

The point is, I'm a bad shopper. Shopping, to me, is like a language I don't speak. What I'm much better with, though, is technology. I pride myself on being a tech-savvy sort of guy, so when I started seeing things like this guided selling software popping up on more and more websites, I did a little digging about how it works. What I found was that it's a technology created specifically for people like me—this must be how my wife felt when she found that website devoted to kittens dressed like historical figures! Anyway, I thought that this was a cool thing, and I wanted to talk about it here, because why not?

Using the Program

So when you log onto an online store that uses guided selling software, it runs a special program that helps you find what you're looking for, even when you don't know what that is. It's basically a virtual salesperson, except it doesn't get paid commission! So pretend that you're buying a Christmas present for your 8-year-old nephew. Ordinarily, I would probably get him something practical, like a set of steak knives. But ever since what my sister has named "The Great Christmas Morning Finger-Reattachment Surgery of 2011," I've learned that children prefer age-appropriate toys. So what do you buy an 8-year-old boy?

If you went into a store, you could ask a salesperson that question, and they may or may not have a good answer. When you go online, though, the online assisted selling program that the site uses asks you questions and comes up with the best answers possible. For example, it might ask you about the child's age and gender, what interests them and what their personality is. When you get to the end, it has a whole list of gifts for you to choose from, all of which are more appropriate than probably anything I would have come up with!

How Does It Work?

You know me—I always want to learn how something works, and it turns out that this type of technology is my favorite kind: Built by human hands! Well, sort of. It's unrealistic to expect a live salesperson to remember the important characteristics of every single product on the shelf, right? Well, when a site implements guided selling software like what we're talking about, it makes the site remember all of those things and organizes it all accordingly. The programmers go through product-by-product, analyzing its key characteristics so that it can be categorized by the computer. For example, a certain toy may be targeted as something appropriate for boys between the ages of 8 and 11 that are creative, technologically-inclined and interested in sports.

Think of a Venn diagram—you know, the diagram in which two circles intersect and overlap each other a little bit. Each circle represents a characteristic, and the place where they overlap represents the thing that the two circles have in common. For example, if one circle says, "Enjoys technology" and the other says, "Enjoys music," the segment where they overlap represents kids that enjoy both. The more circles you add—like "Age 8-11" and "Boy"—the smaller that overlapping segment gets, essentially narrowing down the list of toys that would be the best possible choice.

Why Doesn't Everyone Use This?

If life were fair, this sort of online assisted selling thingy would be everywhere, and I would be sipping margaritas in Chile with a Russian supermodel. But unfortunately, these guided selling programs are relatively new technology (and I misplaced the second disc to my copy of the Russian "Rosetta Stone" software). In fact, most companies don't actually make these tools themselves! Even huge online retailers—and I won't name names here—hire technological super-geniuses to handle all of the programming for them. So while a brick-and-mortar store typically trains its own salespeople and teaches them all about the products and customer service, that's not exactly the case online.

In the meantime, then, it means hopeless schmucks like me have to pick and choose where we shop online and find web stores that offer this sort of thing. And if they don't? It's back to the brick-and-mortar to torture a few helpless salespeople as I try to find the perfect gift for my mother's birthday. She keeps asking for the rest of the "50 Shades of Grey" books—fat chance!

What about you?

How do you feel about websites collecting your information to better recommend products?

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