The role of the store associate in digital transformation

Discussion
Apr 04, 2016

The role of employees, or store associates, in digital transformation often gets lost amid the focus on the technical aspects of this imperative sweeping across the retail industry. They are not mutually exclusive ideas.

I recently wrote about this subject on BrianSolis.com in a post, “Do employees hold the keys to Customer Experience?” The headline implies that it’s in the face-to-face engagement between store associates and shoppers where traditional retailers have the best opportunity to differentiate from their competition — especially Amazon. It’s the adherence of employees to digital transformation goals that makes or breaks a retailer’s ability to execute on these initiatives. That’s the challenge.

Why is this so important? Consider Amazon’s subtle but obvious moves into physical retail, which I think foreshadows a much greater presence. Although online sales are growing faster, most retail dollars flow through physical stores, so Amazon is wise to strategize how to tap into new wallet share. Yet traditional retailers should be far more expert in face-to-face retail, right?

Two recent news items demonstrate retailers are beginning to recognize associate job satisfaction as a priority:

  • Tesco store managers are being encouraged to get into the habit of saying “please” and “thank you” and showing their gratitude for workers in other ways with a goal of “developing a culture of appreciating one another” and ultimately lifting customer service levels;
  • J.C. Penney’s store managers are being freed up from some of their office workload, which includes reducing the number of emails they receive from district offices and headquarters, to spend more time with associates after the chain’s customer service scores dropped last year.

While creating seamless shopping experiences is the “new black,” equally important is how retailers equip their employees to be the brand ambassadors necessary to deliver differentiated service in, around and beyond the walls of the store. Making a store associate’s job as easy (and satisfying) as possible is arguably the best way to ensure employees adhere to digital transformation goals.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
What roles do store associates and person-to-person interaction play in successfully merging virtual and physical stores? How can retailers help store associates do more to support the digital side of the shopping experience?

Braintrust
"A core group of helpful associates should be tapped as an asset to help management stay close to and solve for the shoppers’ needs. That kind of connection will beat almost any type of research out there to over-deliver on best-in-class shopper experience."
"When I first went into sales hundreds of years ago my manager gave me this one piece of advice: All things being equal, people do business with people they like."
"To empower store associates, retailers have their work cut out for them. First, they need to develop the infrastructure to enable the real-time visibly and access store associates need."

Join the Discussion!

17 Comments on "The role of the store associate in digital transformation"


Sort by:   newest | oldest
Frank Riso
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

I have always said that polite store associates win every time, but knowledgeable store associates are even better. Having the right knowledge about products, inventory and pricing is essential for store level associates. Now with turnover so high and the ability to train correctly a difficult task, many retailers are, can or should rely on technology to arm the store associates. It is only fair that store associates have the same tools as the customer toting their smartphones and tablets into the stores. A store associate is more willing to engage the customer if they feel capable of answering questions and/or demonstrating the product capabilities and if they know how and have the right tools to do it all.

Adrian Weidmann
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

People are clearly the single most important experience of differentiation between the physical and virtual world. Empowered customer-facing employees are your most powerful brand ambassadors. The challenge is how corporate policies and structure translate to doing the right thing when standing in front of a customer. There have been numerous instances where the sales associate wanted to do the right thing for me as a customer but the standing corporate policies, processes and capabilities simply didn’t allow them to react dynamically to the situation. Retailers and brands need to give their employees the tools and responsibilities to truly be brand ambassadors without fear of termination when trying to create another valued customer.

Perhaps retailers will begin to value their customer-facing sales associates as more than simply warm bodies.

Chris Petersen, PhD.
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

Gib Bassett offers some excellent examples of how associates are even more critical in creating a differentiated customer experience. There is no substitute for courteous staff well trained on customer service.

However, the question posted in the title of the article still remains: what is the ROLE of the store associate in the digital transformation?

Retailers like John Lewis have trained and equipped store associates with digital technology to help consumers engage digitally while in-store. Should associates be trained on kiosks and mobile devices to help customers shop omnichannel while in-store? If they do, does that create a customer experience that results in more sales?

There is also an important question of whether consumers want associate assistance in helping them merge virtual and physical stores. Many consumer studies suggest that we go to stores to interact with people not screens.

The amazing thing is that most all of these ideas are testable and measurable. For what ever the reasons, few retailers are testing very little about how associates can be the bridge between digital and physical stores.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

This is a key topic for retail leaders. Everyone I talk to agrees that empowered and knowledgeable store associates are the key to the new retail experience. Associates need to make more money, stay in the job longer and take on a new role in customer accommodation. It’s time for retailers to move their attention from e-commerce to the store, where 90 percent of sales are made.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

One vital role a store associate can play is to be aware of not only the items in the store but those also available online. I have been pleasantly surprised by associates who said, we don’t carry that item in the store but we can either order it and have it here for pick up or have it sent to your home or office. Likewise I have been disappointed to have a discussion with a store employee who basically said they didn’t carry an item, only to return home, do a search online and find that the item is available from the retailer’s website.

Bob Amster
Guest
1 year 9 months ago
In this publication we have examined a number of changing conditions that impact the answer to these questions. We talked about store associates having to take on the role of in-store fulfillment (pick, pack, ship-to/hold-for customer) and the training required, we talked about store associates being free to assist customers at every turn and the training required and we talked about about customers helping themselves while receiving a retailer’s messages and offers through geofencing. We also addressed compensation for sharing in the workload while providing the highest degree of customer service. The environment gets more complex, not simpler. The fact is that the retailers will need to test, analyze and determine if they can afford to do all these things simultaneously or favor some formats over others. Additional training of associates, coupled with assigning some portion of their time to non-sales, support-type functions costs the retailers money. The answer will come when retailers determine if (or how) they can afford to take on all or some of these new responsibilities, or forego the required training… Read more »
Joan Treistman
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

I like the reference to the word “seamless.” It’s a two sided initiative. The consumer is delighted by a seamless shopping experience. The store associate is empowered by producing a seamless transaction for the store.

Management plays the largest role to insure the seamless experience exists for shopper and staff alike. I was awestruck that store managers had to deliberately learn to use the words “please” and “thank you.” Seems to me there is enough need for training all around.

I suppose it’s too simple for management to keep a diary for a month, tracking their own shopper experiences with about 10 or so virtual and physical stores (not their own of course). One brainstorming session (well facilitated) could help them identify where there are shortcomings. The next step would be to engage store associates in developing a new protocol, one that integrates digital with the in-store experience. Buy-in from everyone involved and particularly acting upon a consumer experience perspective will probably enhance the store associate’s knowledge, behavior and transaction results … and personal satisfaction.

Anne Howe
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

About eight years ago, my then 18-year-old son was chastised at work in a Brookstone store for using his cell phone to go online and help a customer find further information on a product. The end result was no sale.

My son quit retail because he felt so restricted by policy to help shoppers. Especially in stores like Brookstone. Rules in retail that inhibit the natural helpful behavior that most humans are inclined toward continue to make me feel grumpy.

Too bad it’s taken many retailers all this time to begin to appreciate and foster the in-store practice of people helping people using available technology. And to instill the value of good manners!

A core group of helpful associates should be tapped as an asset to help management stay close to and solve for the shoppers’ needs. That kind of connection will beat almost any type of research out there to over-deliver on best-in-class shopper experience.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

Store associates are the single most significant ingredient in the consumer’s first and lasting impression. As such the emphasis must be placed on hiring and maintaining the best a retailer can get to suit their needs and to create an environment that is suitable to the employee. How a retailer treats their employees tells all about their concerns for the consumer. After all, the employee is a customer too whether we think so or not. The acquisition and use of technology must be recognized and selected as a tool for the employees. The failure to approach with this in the forefront of the investment loses not just billions of unrecoverable dollars but many valuable employees and disgruntled consumers as well. After all these years one might think we would have figured this out by now.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

When I first went into sales hundreds of years ago my manager gave me this one piece of advice: All things being equal, people do business with people they like. All things being unequal, people do business with people they like.

If you are going to win the battle of the retail, the key is having associates that people want to do business with.

Vahe Katros
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

If possible, instead of an associate playing multiple roles, try using multiple people who are expert at different aspects of the solution. There are many realtime technology solutions such as Slack — you could create role based “expert” channels and Facetime to test the idea with zero investment.

You might want to test this for both theatrical and real reasons — test and get feedback. This might also be seen as a way to move up the career ladder as associates master multiple roles. Experts can earn their badges around areas like design, product-customer context, lifestyle, life-stage and so on.

The expert role could be coveted if you allow experts to work remotely (think Ron Johnson and enjoy.com.) Each expert could be responsible for maintaining an FAQ.

Ken Morris
Guest
1 year 9 months ago
With elevated consumer expectations in their shopping journey, retailers need to elevate their services, especially in the store — where 90% of transactions still occur. The digitally connected consumer expects to have access to information and the ability to purchase any time, anywhere and everywhere. When they visit a store, consumers expect the store associates to know everything they know — and more. This requires store associates to be digitally connected too, with access to real-time information across the enterprise. To empower store associates, retailers have their work cut out for them. First, they need to develop the infrastructure to enable the real-time visibly and access store associates need. Second, they need to invest in mobile devices for the associate to tap into the tools they need. Third, store associates need to be trained on the new tools and processes so they can efficiently navigate the systems provide these advanced services. And lastly, they need to be compensated appropriately. With the technology, people and processes in place, retailers also need to focus on the personal touch of… Read more »
Zel Bianco
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

A friendly and knowledgeable salesperson is one of the best ways to build customer loyalty. Overall, retailers need to value their store associates, provide more education on their products and also offer interpersonal training. Providing ongoing training and long-term mentoring should also be offered. Companies should also be utilizing their store associates’ insights. Since associates are interacting with customers all day, they are constantly hearing the consumer’s opinions on brands and what they want more of. Store associates can be a powerful research tool. This customer insight is invaluable.

Martin Mehalchin
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

We always encourage our clients to look at both sides of the coin when starting a design project: What is the consumer experience you are trying to create and what is the role for digital AND how can you use digital (and data) to support store associates in serving the consumer and their delivery of the experience?

William Hogben
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

Store associates set the tone of the store — they’re there before you arrive and they’ll be there when you’re gone. Their reaction to new initiatives primes the customer, and staff negativity towards a new technology is difficult to overcome.

Matt Talbot
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

Without a doubt, the importance of customer service has grown monumentally in the last few years — and continues to grow. Some e-commerce companies, like Zappos, are known for excellent customer service. It is paramount that if companies wish to be known for customer service, it’s both offline and online.

Buzz around customer service is a driver for many customers to try out a company’s product/services. Businesses that have worked to instill this as a valuable company component online would be wise to ensure it remains important in-store.

Associates and store employees are also an in-house data collection tool, often underused. Face-to-face communication is an extraordinary method to better understand consumer need and demand. I think the most important part of supporting digital business components is ensuring a transfer of knowledge. As stores (like Amazon) open both online and offline shopping avenues — businesses must find a way to streamline information so that employees are understanding of both designs.

Kevin Kearns
Guest
Kevin Kearns
1 year 9 months ago

Retail associates are living, breathing extensions of the brand. And recognizing their immense value in this “digital age,” retailers need to make the proper investments in their staff. This should start with fostering expertise, adequately compensating workers, offering understanding in regards to scheduling, providing a meaningful culture, and then move into equipping them with relevant, tested technology. Supporting the digital side of shopping doesn’t simply mean putting an iPad in the hands of an associate.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"A core group of helpful associates should be tapped as an asset to help management stay close to and solve for the shoppers’ needs. That kind of connection will beat almost any type of research out there to over-deliver on best-in-class shopper experience."
"When I first went into sales hundreds of years ago my manager gave me this one piece of advice: All things being equal, people do business with people they like."
"To empower store associates, retailers have their work cut out for them. First, they need to develop the infrastructure to enable the real-time visibly and access store associates need."

Take Our Instant Poll

Do you agree that retailers need to an approach to digital transformation that supports store associate job satisfaction?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...