Makro – The Best of Bot Worlds

Makro has built a reputation for itself through their journey from a wholesaler to an e-commerce hub serving both B2B and B2C customers. Makro sells a range of products that include everything from general merchandise, to liquor, to food, making it a “One-stop shop” familiar to people who know the firm’s biggest stakeholder, Walmart. We learn how Makro is developing new tools to adapt their business to the digital age.

When we last spoke to Makro, 4 years ago, they were upgrading their digital platform infrastructure and IT to keep up with the needs of an increasingly digital marketplace. The traditional digital marketing landscape of South Africa is experiencing dramatic developments while changes in technology development. Makro has grown and improved a great deal in this time.

“We’ve definitely been growing. Last year was a really tough economic time for us,” explains Kerry Ho van Rensburg, the Head of Digital Marketing for Makro SA. Van Rensburg’s responsibility is to market Makro’s products to its customers from a digital point of view.  “However, importantly, we realise that digital online technology is the future and it’s an expectation from our customers now.” Lazo Karapanagiotidis, the Head of Digital Innovation for Makro SA, explains that: ”With close to 20 million South Africans on the communication platform, by virtue of operating an omnichannel business, offering services through the interface seemed logical to help our customers save time by receiving essential feedback and value-adding features swiftly and intuitively.”

A Complete Digital Solution

Of course, digital and online arenas are ones that nearly every business will give lip service to now.

“Most large corporates say ‘digital is the future’ but don’t fully understand what that means,” van Rensburg says. “Makro gives importance to and understands that the business must evolve to meet customer’s demands. Makro is working hard to evolve for a high-tech digital marketing evolution, having a full internal digital marketing team, full e-commerce team and a digital innovation team. This includes actively seeking out alternative mediums and new channels in the market, asking what we can create and develop to reach our consumers to service them better,” she explains.

One of the ways Makro is breaking new ground in this field is becoming one of the first retailers in the country to develop a customer WhatsApp bot. WhatsApp is a free, cross-platform messaging and voice call service owned by Facebook, with a huge impact in South Africa.

Knowing that Makro alone could not tackle this idea, it decided to join forces with Clickatell, Feersum Engine and Facebook. Makro’s digital team now have direct access to Facebook and their WhatsApp team.

The bots design makes it easy for customers to interact with and find information from Makro, but one thing it is not is an ad delivery system.

“We do it for core marketing, not push marketing. We market the bot through our digital channels and in print with QR codes that customers can easily scan for access,” van Rensburg tells us.

“Push marketing has its place but is very intrusive and that’s why we specifically created this channel for our customers to interact with us. It really is for the customer first and foremost, to make it easier for them to communicate with us.”

The bot enables customers to access their Makro card, enter competitions, and receive order delivery statuses, promotional information, store finder and FAQs.

Natural Language

As well as providing a channel for communication and information, the bot also serves other functions, as van Rensburg explains, “What it’s most used for by customers is to retrieve their Makro card. A Makro card is necessary for a shopper to purchase at Makro, whether online or in-store. Customers often misplace it or can’t remember their Makro card number, so the bot makes it easy for customers to retrieve their card details.”

A project like this is by no means straightforward. There is the challenge of integrating your own software with external customer-facing systems, then the challenge of creating a chat interface that can respond to humans interacting with it while still returning accurate responses that make sense.

“Integration was a challenge in that we needed to provide data in real-time, from legacy systems. We, however, had the support from multiple disciplines to do so, to realise this vision to offer services such as detailed customer orders statuses and customer cards. Natural language understanding is a full-time job; it’s something we know we need to keep working on to ensure it gets better and more customer-centric.” Karapanagiotidis reveals.

Of course, an essential tool in developing a platform like this is a large reservoir of data on your target audience. Fortunately, the registration-only setup Makro uses means they have plenty of resources on this front.

Talking to van Rensburg it is clear she is pleased with the response the bot has seen since its release. “It’s been amazing. Even without push marketing, at any given time we have about 20-to-30,000 users a month. There is an increasing amount of people asking questions, registering for competitions, and requesting catalogues and information,” she says.

The Road Ahead

Makro is not planning to stop here with big plans for the future in motion.

Van Rensburg tells us, “We have a big roadmap for 2020. We are constantly in communication with Facebook to understand what we can do in order to do push marketing as well as to allow customers to purchase directly from WhatsApp. It’s reassuring that the Makro leadership understands how important it is to evolve to meet customer’s needs.”

The key to the strategy, van Rensburg insists, is consistently listening to and engaging with our customers, rather than employing the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach common in marketing. She says, “It will assist in connecting with customers from a personal point of view rather than simply throwing money at it and hoping for people to connect with us.”

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