The Future of Customer Service


The future of customer service in retail depends heavily on investment. Money talks, and in the case of customer service, money in the customer experience is what helps convert a sale. Retailers who invest in improving and developing the customer experience are forward thinkers, knowing that such an investment doesn't produce returns right away. As well as a financial commitment, it also takes a significant amount of time and dedication to improve the customer experience, regardless of whether the experience takes place in-store or through e-commerce. Investing to improve customer experience is essential for retailers to prosper in the long-term.

The experience each customer receives should be a fundamental part of a brand's culture; a core pillar of the business. If this positive culture begins to crumble, it can be very difficult for a retailer to rebuild. Leadership within a business is key to driving consistent and positive customer experiences, while improving technologies to create a more personalised experiences also helps.

Culture and leadership shapes customer service

Retailers who have high levels of customer service and are exceeding their customer's expectations often are the types of businesses who have a strong service-focused culture. Customers' expectations about service levels can vary greatly, which is reflected in their views of each service experience. Although service levels vary depending on what the expectation is, customer service means more than just the engagement between staff and customers at a point of sale.

Customer service is a critical part of the retail culture and should be built into all elements of the business. This include product quality, displays and visuals, digital platforms and, of course, the interactions between shop employees and customers. With exponential growth globally in e-commerce retailing, there is an expectation from consumers that service levels on digital platforms will match the in-store experience. Those pillars of customer service in-store must be translated in a similar way online. If you only operate an online platform, evaluate if those digital service levels might work in-store. Consider the ease of making payments; do you offer live online chat; do you have staff that demonstrate product knowledge with customers in store; do you have a simple and effective returns policy in place?

Culture is also a key pillar. A poor organisational culture is often the reason retailers find it difficult to make improvements on customer experiences. However, if customer service is built into the everyday culture of the brand there tends to be better performance. Whether it's from a CEO, manager, owner-operator or someone else in charge, the expectation of customer service must be led by example.

Setting the standard early on, and sticking to it, will likely lead to a consistent and positive reputation when it comes to service. When training staff about service levels, remember the "monkey-see-monkey-do" approach. If staff members see the manager or person in charge going above and beyond for customers each and every time, they will better understand what levels of service are expected from them too.

As we have heard time and time again, good customer service across all channels leads to customer loyalty. Lacking brand recognition and low-quality service on all platforms a business operates on could also make customers harder to convert.

Customer service means making the most of customer's time

Often consumers like to shop at retailers where their experience is customised to fit their personality and shopping patterns. Of course, this is much easier to achieve with the help of technology, which allows you to track your customers behaviours. However, this preferred way of shopping also means that during in-store experiences, sales staff must be engaged and dedicated to making the best use of a customer's time.

Technology is very advanced, which means it can be very expensive. If some of those high-end, retail data collecting software programmes are out of reach for now, there are other ways to personalise an in-store experience for consumers. The key will be well trained staff and enough of them. Customers generally love to feel like a priority, especially if a staff member is getting to know them and understand their needs. One-on-one experiences are valued by today's shopper and creates a positive experience which they will share with their social networks.

Listening to a customer's needs and taking the time to understand those needs demonstrates a respect for a customer's time. Ignoring their wants or needs will result in a lost sale. Consumers want shopping to be more efficient and convenient than ever before, which means a salesperson only has a short window to make good use of a customer's time. If time is used effectively, the customer will likely have a good experience and will buy. This will also provide the opportunity to create or improve customer loyalty.

Technologies must meet the customer expectation

If a retailer is choosing to invest heavily in technological innovations to make the customer experience even better, ensure current and future customers are kept in mind during this process. Innovation in technologies which track the digital footprint of consumers make it easier to learn more about customer preferences and behaviours. A consumer's digital footprint essentially tracks their movements and determines the patterns in their online retail activities, in turn leading to more effective marketing. However, a retailer investing significantly in this technology without investing in consumer facing digital platforms (website, social media, online POS processes, etc), will likely lose customers.

Consumers expectations of a retailer's digital capabilities are changing, especially with significant technological development overseas. Whether it be POS systems on mobile phones, advanced loyalty programmes, facial recognition or a number of other technologies, retailers should be investing in these new technologies to meet the expectation of present and future consumers, domestically and globally. Retailers should not make any rushed decisions on what technologies to implement into a business without being certain that there is brand consistency overall, especially when it comes to customer service. Customer service is increasingly more than the face-to-face interactions. It would be great for New Zealand retailers to be ahead of the curve globally and lead the way with customer service innovations.

by Scott Fisher, Retail NZ CEO

Published in the 27th August edition of Talking Shop.