The New Customer Experience
Positioning Associates as Store Ambassadors
The primary takeaway after speaking with a store manager from a Fortune 500 retailer about the "new customer experience":
She could not be more right. Yesterday's "demanding experience" is today's "minimum experience" level. Today, customers have the ability and savvy to no longer accept only one offering. Instead, they speak with their wallets, indicating their desire for convenience, price, and quality and speak with their digital voices seeking confirmation, acceptance and empathy. Just as retailers are leveraging and investing in new and increasing numbers of touchpoints, so are customers.
Through hearing experiences in this customer-centric space, retailers can learn from their customers and turn those lessons into competitive advantages. Further, each experience will have key takeaways that retailers can use both at the associate and leadership level. Based on a recent study, 70% of customers expect to have visibility into store pricing and inventory levels online and to over 50% expect option to reserve merchandise remotely. The customer is a passenger no longer, but sits squarely in the driver's seat.
Great service and / or breakdowns in the customer experience do not come from one place alone; the entire organization must be aligned and ready to delight and inspire the customer on every visit. This strategy starts at the corporate level and must effectively trickle down to the store level. Associates must be educated with the right information and provided the technology to support the "new customer experience."
There's Something About Sarah: Differential Pricing
Differential pricing has become a retail norm and can be found across nearly all retail sales models. As technology and price transparency advance, the onus is on the retailer to become the expert in consistent price messaging. Furthermore, differential prices will be discovered, so retailers must be in front of customer issues – with concrete and well-communicated plans across all customer touchpoints to ensure positive experiences
The lesson here is not to disallow shoppers with popular blogs and significant social followings to shop in your store (the same goes for traditional media personalities). Instead, Sarah gave the store multiple options to meet her needs, which perhaps surprisingly, was not just obtaining the item at a discounted price. Sarah's need was for the price (or at least the messaging) to be consistent. Retailers who differentiate pricing (the majority) need to be experts at targeting price messages to customers. The following elements should have been addressed to prevent this situation:
• Geo-targeted pricing ensuring that the price across all channels was the same for that zip code or geographic region;
• If the retailer choses to not provide price consistency, then the following messaging should be in place:
– An obvious price disclaimer for when the customer views in-store availability of items with different prices than what is listed online;
– An obvious price disclaimer upon selecting the pick-up-in-store option, as well as upfront communication of fulfillment expectation; or
– A customer service policy that takes care of the customer at the store level.
With the latter elements solidly in place and properly communicated, prices do not have to be the same in a single, multi, or omnichannel pricing environment. Customers should be presented with either a consistent price or clear, upfront messaging across his or her shopping experience so they can make informed purchasing decisions without surprises. Should the technology in place fall short, store associates must be empowered actors to ensure the customer experience remains positive.
When Harry met Technology: And Worse Customer Service
Customers have an expected level of the service they will receive at any given retailer (represented through a continuum like the example in Parker Avery's point of view, "Role of the Store: The Power of Brick and Mortar Retailing in the Omnichannel Experience"). Each retailer must ensure they have conducted adequate customer research to know their customer's expectations and how to deliver the corresponding brand experience. This is especially vital as the role of technology increases in stores. Labor hours and labor spend is tied innately to the customer experience. While increasing efficiencies can be a source of significant expense savings for the retailer, it can also be the source of considerable customer dissatisfaction.
The high-level presentation of the idea to replace traditional checkout stations with self-service terminals likely sounded like this: "New technology will let us reduce labor and improve customer satisfaction!" Customers would be able to checkout at their own pace and one associate can safely oversee multiple customer lanes, allowing for the labor savings with no customer impact.
Alas, this was not the case.
The lesson here is that the grocer forgot a key element: while labor is not a differentiator in the customer experience, customer service is. In other words, while "pulling the labor lever" one way or another will not directly move the customer experience needle, it will affect a critical input into the customer experience: customer service.
This discrepancy was also unfortunately highlighted in the most critical area of the store, the entrance, which doubles as the highest influence in touch and user experience. Typically, the entrance (and exit) are the first and last thing a customer experiences within the four walls; it is the most likely thing to frame the customer's impression of the retailer. Harry gave the store two chances to repay his loyalty and decision to shop, and both times the grocer let him down.
Research and industry data tell us repeatedly that customers value store associate face time and knowledgeable interaction, and while there are diminishing returns past the customer's expected level of service, not meeting the level at all will cost retailers in sales, return visits, and reputation.
Say Anything: Except that the Prices are Wrong
Even the best planned pricing policies, enterprise marketing designs, and strategic decision-making are gated by the level of execution at the store level. Store-level execution of workload should be supported by: training, scheduling, follow-up / reinforcement and recognition. Even then, incidents do happen, and retailers need to have strong customer service policies in place to ensure a positive customer experience
Olivia's needs were simple: show me the price you expect me to pay (and then take care of me if it's wrong). In-store pricing execution should have five key elements:
• Be scheduled in advance
• Be staffed by trained employees who consistently execute the task
• Be conducted during low volume business times (or outside of store hours)
• Have sufficient resources and time to execute the task to a high degree of accuracy (e.g., ensure signage changes, perform appropriate sign/price checks)
• Undergo an auditing process, preferably by another member of the same trained group before the process is complete
Perhaps most importantly, when there is an error, resolve it in a manner that preserves the customer experience.
The customer has already endured one slight with the incorrect price – they should not endure another due to lack of empathy or unnecessary work to "prove" the pricing.
Disagreements like this are 10% content and 90% attitude. A positive employee could have completely changed the outcome of this situation.
Cross functional team meetings and heavy involvement from stores and labor standards groups can ensure that each home office decision is paired with sufficient support from the store staff. Great ideas can yield tremendous results, but without great execution on the ground level, ideas are all they will ever be.
Four Weddings and a Funeral, and nothing to wear!
Brand advocates can exist in all retail sectors, but they must be nurtured and constantly reminded of why they shop with a brand. Each time a customer interacts with a brand is an opportunity to turn that customer into a brand advocate. This requires the appropriate amount of employee training, empowerment and technology as well as process definition and execution.
This example paints the true picture of brand advocacy – developed through consistent and exceptional customer experiences with the brand. Note that Jasmine did not even consider another retailer to meet her needs. The sales associates at this retailer are not simply cashiers or fashion advisors. They are trained to identify and find solutions to their customers' needs, and empowered to go beyond the four walls of their own store to meet these needs. The brand understands the value of enabling inventory visibility and offering multiple fulfillment options and then training their sales associates on how to efficiently use the technology to assist their customers.
The sales associate did not have to remind Jasmine about the special discount – in fact, not applying the discount would have increased the total amount of the purchase and benefitted the store's sales figures. However, Jasmine's elevated customer satisfaction created by this simple act and reinforcement of why she will continue to shop at this retailer – as well as tell her social circles about the brand – pays dividends that far exceed the small reduction in revenue.
Well-planned, customer-centric execution at the store level can be the difference between a great idea and a disastrous failure. Retailers who understand their customer's expectations and empower their teams will enjoy greater degrees of technological freedom and margin increases, while maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction.
A recent survey highlighted that only 33% of hourly employees felt empowered to resolve a customer's issues. This has to change. Each employee is becoming more and more important and every employee is an ambassador for your brand and perhaps the only ambassador that customer will experience.
Finally, plan ahead for issues you know are coming – set clear and consistent customer service expectations and deliver them day in and day out. Customer technology is not only granting more visibility into your brand, prices and competition – it is also providing customers a way to loudly and instantly tie their experiences (positive or negative) to your brand in ways that will resonate for years to come.
If you’d like to learn more about our vision or understand how you might take advantage of this strategy, contact us or call 770.882.2205.