In years past, when most people did their shopping in neighborhood stores, retailers knew their customers’ names and their buying habits. By maintaining long-standing relationships with their clientele, shopkeepers were able to better serve customers — anticipating their needs and providing personalized experiences. Over time, as retail moved away from mom-and-pop shops and toward department stores and big-box outlets, this level of intimacy between shoppers and shopkeepers was largely lost. While some customers today are still on a first-name basis with their baristas and their barbers, most buy their clothing, groceries and electronics from strangers.
Through the tracking of customer data, retailers are beginning to re-establish some of those lost connections. When used correctly, data analytics can enhance customers’ experiences, saving them time and money and making them feel valued. In this instance, however, more isn’t necessarily better. If shoppers feel like a retailer is tracking their every move, they may become uncomfortable and disengage with the brand completely.
The Customer Journey
Providing customers with a great experience in the digital age doesn’t merely mean allowing them to interact with a brand in a number of different ways. A retailer can support text and video chat for customer service inquiries, give customers access to useful and interactive mobile apps, and target customers with tailored advertisements and offers based on their purchase history. However, if these systems are disconnected from one another, customers might still have a frustrating and unproductive experience, regardless of a retailer’s new investments in technology.
Unifying the customer experience across all channels and devices, on the other hand, can create the deep personalization that customers value and have come to expect. It builds a loyalty that encourages shoppers to maintain the relationships they have with specific retailers. For example, a shopper might begin comparing snowblowers on a retailer’s website while sitting at home. If the retailer has real-time asset tracking, the shopper can see which models are in stock and may decide to drive to the store to view the machines in person. If the shopper has the store’s mobile app installed on her phone — assuming the store’s website has machine compatibility with its mobile app — the app can recognize the shopper the instant she walks into the store. Then, the app can take a number of actions to help convert the sale, such as giving the customer in-store directions to the snowblowers or pushing out a buy-now discount. If the customer does make the purchase, the retailer can email deals the next winter for related items such as motor oil and rock salt.
It is essential that retailers have a digital strategy in place to guide investments in the underlying technologies supporting these capabilities and to ensure that deployments are helping the company meet its bottom line and customer service goals. At the same time, such strategies must be flexible enough to accommodate changes in both the technological landscape and the retail market.
Retailers must remember that not all of their customers are ready to utilize all of the technology tools they’re able to offer. A substantial digital divide remains between some consumers and others, largely following generational lines. While it often seems that “everyone” is glued to his or her mobile device, a survey by the Pew Research Center showed that more than one-third of U.S. residents still did not own a smartphone in 2015. In practice, this means that while many shoppers prefer to engage with a retailer’s customer service team over social media, others still want to call the company’s customer contact center.
The Next Generation of Customer Service
Retailers can exceed customers’ expectations by making strategic investments in technology, engaging in sophisticated data analysis and carefully managing their various digital channels. Many shoppers are conditioned to feel satisfied if a retailer is able to solve their problems on even a basic level in a reasonable amount of time. When retailers are able to go above and beyond this level of service, they can create a real competitive advantage for themselves. But this next-generation customer service takes thoughtful planning, and retailers must also be careful not to overstep the invisible boundaries that will make customers feel as though a store is watching and tracking them, rather than helping.
Next-generation customer service starts the minute a customer walks into a store, and continues long after a sale has been made. For instance, by tying purchase history data into a mobile app, a clothing retailer can be ready to provide personalized service when a customer returns to the store. If the customer purchased a gray suit on her last visit, perhaps a sales associate can greet her with a matching blouse, belt and necklace. Once a customer has brought a product home, retailers can continue to provide next-generation customer service with a solid presence across self-help channels that customers use, including social media and web searches. Retailers should also monitor online communities and forums to engage with customers who post questions and concerns. Tools such as click-to-chat or click-to-call should be supported across channels — including text, voice and video — to give customers multiple ways to engage with a company.
Providing these tools alone, however, won’t ensure a great customer experience. Along with technology, retailers must implement policies and procedures that ensure a quality experience. If a retailer merely uses social media platforms to express empty sentiments such as “We’re sorry you’re frustrated” — rather than working to solve shoppers’ problems — then customers are likely to remain unsatisfied and possibly use social means to vent their dissatisfaction with the brand.
Another pitfall of next-generation customer service is the “creep-out” factor that shoppers sometimes experience when they feel like they’re being relentlessly monitored and aggressively targeted. While many consumers appreciate receiving tailored marketing messages and deals, they don’t want to search online for a lawn mower one time and then see nothing but lawn mower advertisements on their web browser, phone and mobile apps for the next two weeks. Even if targeted messaging is subtler than this, customers sometimes tune out when they are bombarded with the “digital noise” of constant emails and push notifications. It is often better to target a customer through a single portal, such as a mobile app, than through many channels all at once.
When done effectively, next-generation customer service feels organic and seamless to shoppers. But this doesn’t happen by accident. These efforts must be supported by investments in robust, modern infrastructure that can power the connectivity and data analysis needed to provide a personalized customer service experience.
A retailer looking to deploy advanced solutions must shore up its entire network, from the data center out to wireless access points in individual stores. It does little good to roll out a sleek custom mobile app if customers are unable to utilize it because retailers lack the proper Wi-Fi infrastructure. Retailers should also explore emerging technologies and investigate whether investments in these areas can create value for the company and its customers (for example, mobile beacons that connect with customers’ mobile and wearable devices). Finally, investments in data collection and analytics are necessary to capture and use real-time insights about customer location and behavior. Many retailers are exploring cloud solutions — public, private or hybrid — as a way to host this new infrastructure and software.
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