Who owns customer service in an age of co-branding?

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Jul 16, 2019
Patricia Vekich Waldron

New initiatives — call them co-opetition, frenemy agreements or partnerships — are bringing together retailers, brands and online marketplaces to create compelling new activations, offers and experiences for consumers. And presumably to improve one or more business metrics: traffic, revenue, profitability, net-new customers or visibility.

When forming these initiatives, companies must determine what metrics they want to drive as well as the impact on service levels and sales associates. Who will be responsible for traditional responsibilities of sales associates: welcoming shoppers, providing product information and advice, completing transactions for purchases, and handling returns, refunds and complaints?

Will Macy’s employees be able to assist customers with information on how to best use MiracleGro or take returns for Dick’s Sporting Goods merchandise at Outdoor STORY installations or will additional associates from each company be needed?

Even though department stores have operated stores-within-a-store for years, the experience is still far from seamless for shoppers. One is often told, “I don’t work in this department” when asking for assistance. It’s a frequent response in department stores, especially in cosmetics and accessories.

My recent experience when I returned athletic shoes at Macy’s illustrates the disconnect shoppers often experience. My shoes were from Finish Line, so only a clerk from that department could complete the transaction, as I did not accept a box when I bought them (so much for eco-consciousness). An associate and the floor manager spent ten minutes explaining to me that it was not actually a “Macy’s sale” so they could not assist me. I would have to wait another ten minutes until the FL associate came back from his break. The transaction was ultimately processed, but it was not easy, quick or pleasant.

Post-purchase service is especially important and its impact on overall customer satisfaction is vastly underestimated. One can be certain that, regardless of the partnerships’ goals to drive interest in events, cultivate clients or generate sales, customers expect that anyone associated with the activation will step up to provide needed assistance, information and service.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: With so many companies partnering up, how can one ensure seamless service? Who is ultimately responsible for assisting customers in a co-branded model?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"The industry can’t just decide to forge these alliances without properly addressing every possible sticky point, and how it will be best handled."
"The buck stops with whoever’s name is on the store. "
"Customers don’t understand, nor do they care, that associates on the sales floor might not work in that department, or even the store."

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18 Comments on "Who owns customer service in an age of co-branding?"


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Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

As retail ecosystems grow and become more complex this issue will become bigger and bigger. In the eyes of the customer it does not matter – as long as they see consistency – they want “one throat to choke” and it needs to be the banner from which they bought the product or service. Sharing of data between organizations and efficient use of APIs to streamline this will become more critical. It is often they way that the initial efforts in collaborating are sales-focused – the smart retailers will ensure that the entire customer journey is dealt with appropriately through careful sharing.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I agree. The buck stops with whoever’s name is on the store. The customer bought the item in your store and has a reasonable expectation that you will take care of any issues that arise. As the retailer, that many not seem fair to you but as we have often stated, the consumer’s perception is the reality that retailers have to deal with.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Perfect!!!!!!!!!!!

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

I can only add a ditto to this. In the case of the shoes, some smart entrepreneur should come up with a generic return process that would allow Macy’s to take a return and then transfer back into the FL inventory. Or perhaps you simply train the store employees on how to handle their guests’ returns. Hmmm and my 2 cents.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Good points you bring up, Patricia! Store-level execution has been the achilles heel of retailing since the dawn of time. It is up to senior management to have clear and straightforward procedures in place to help ensure the seamless experience. However, we all know that is easier said than done. Patricia asks, “Who is responsible for customers…?”. Well, as I have always said, if you’re not helping customers directly, you better be helping someone who is. That means corporate has got to get their act in gear and support the stores like never before in these complex shopping times.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

The store-within-a-store concept is far from a new one. However the customer experience, as Patricia has called out, is far from optimal, especially as it relates to questions, product returns and who is responsible for what.

It’s clear that cross-trained and incentivized brand ambassadors, who could service the store’s main customers, as well as step in when the customers have specific needs in the store-within-a-store will be a win-win proposition.

Today’s customer has limited patience or tolerance for bad customer experiences. More than likely they will hold the department store/parent company responsible, as it is occurring in their four walls. With that said, retailers and brands should recognize these challenges and rise to the occasion to drive better customer experience.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Brands and retailers have to finish what they start. The example of STORY at Macy’s is very useful here. Would I expect lessons on how to use Miracle-Gro during a visit to Macy’s? No, but if Macy’s serves it up as part of STORY then they have to be able to finish the story. I love what Macy’s is trying to do with STORY. They are giving themselves a lot of latitude in their storytelling agenda — a lot of latitude in continually serving up fresh, new experiences. Now they have to fully execute. The article says it well. Brands and retailers are going to have to step up and execute. It’s a good example of being careful of what you wish for — being careful of what you promise.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

I have already checked off the thumbs-up box on the first two comments from my BrainTrust colleagues. This is going to be about training the store associates (if management believes it is important, and it is) to be of service irrespective of the department that initiated the sale. For example, at least in my home town Trader Joe’s if I ask about a product the associate – any associate – will drop what s/he is doing and walk me over to the product, every time. If the department store associate does not work for the branded department, the least they could do, rather than utter the words “it’s not my department,” is to escort the customer to that department, identify an associate on duty and physically hand off the customer to the proper associate. Communications devices, proper training, and supervision all become more important. The industry can’t just decide to forge these alliances without properly addressing every possible sticky point, and how it will be best handled.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

There are three critical hurdles to any alliance: systems, metrics and rewards, and human nature. Systems required to address issues such as accounting for SWAS sales, returns, inventory costs and operating costs cause customer service issues like those Patricia experienced with her Finish Line/Macy’s shoes. Metrics and rewards for performance are seldom aligned between partners — and even less so between the store level associates of the partners. This leads to the “I don’t get paid for that” syndrome that kills customer service. Finally, human nature. A prominent political figure in WWII is credited with saying “the only reliable alliances are those formed when two parties are faced with a terrifying common enemy.” Alliances based on the pursuit of common rewards almost always fall apart when one party inevitably begins to seek what the other party perceives as unfair advantage or rewards. This ultimately destroys the partnership. That’s a daunting gauntlet for retail frenemies.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Rich and I had that experience in a store last night when we asked an associate where to find a specific item. She stumbled for an answer, thinking out loud, until she confessed that she didn’t work for the store, she sold vacation packages. Okay cool, except that she was wearing the same uniform as store employees.

Customers don’t understand, nor do they care, that associates on the sales floor might not work in that department, or even the store. Additional training is required by the main retailer to ensure that when a co-service provider can’t answer a question they know to pleasantly say, “Let me find someone who can help you.” And then follow up to make sure the customer was helped.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Let’s make this simple. The customer expects customer service from the people they deal with. If they buy at Macy’s and have a problem with Dick’s, they expect Macy’s to solve the problem. “It’s not my problem.” is not an acceptable answer. Customer service is not about the company, it is about the customer. The Amazon marketplace must act the same way. Amazon, solve my problem. Don’t send me to someone I never dealt with.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

First and foremost, customer service is everyone’s job. It’s not a department, it’s a philosophy to be embraced by everyone. Next is to recognize that if a retailer is going to blend brands, there has to be a consistent experience when a customer moves between brands. For example, taking a Dick’s Sporting Goods return at Macy’s (or the other way around) is convenient for the customer. The service experience must be the same. That means training. Management/leadership from each brand and each store is responsible for overseeing and leading a consistent and predictable customer experience.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

The responsibility for customer service comes down to the person standing in front of the customer (or on the phone with them). It’s definitely a growing issue with all the co-branding and partnerships and ultimately retailers need to ensure great customer service, no matter what agreements are in place behind the scenes. The co-branding can only be as great as the service and customer experience they can provide.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

Really great discussion! Interestingly enough, yesterday I returned an Amazon package at Kohl’s and they totally nailed it! I walked in and was greeted immediately and directed to the Amazon counter. The associate knew all the processes, was helpful and quick. And I made a purchase using the 25% gift voucher that was generated along with my return.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

This is an element of something I wrote about a few years ago regarding social media and who ultimately owns the relationship with the customer — is it the brand or the retailer or the social media platform you buy it through? When there are multiple partners involved in a transaction, it’s important to make things seamless for the customer. I don’t think they see the distinction in the same way as the brand/retailer. If you asked most people, I think ultimately they would say that if they bought it under Macy’s roof then they bought it from Macy’s. To not be prepared for that, and able to provide the service expected, is a big mistake.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Consistency at scale — that’s what’s missing from so many retail stores. The issue Patricia experienced is a great example of where “scale” failed. Attempting to run the Finish Line department on a separate POS from the rest of Macy’s is less likely a purely business level operations decision as it is integration, or lack of integration, decision.

Legacy brands who see POS integration as a nightmare waiting to happen, fail to look at the problem from the customer’s perspective. And these brands then leave various areas functioning on separate POS systems resulting in fractured customer experiences. Yes, undertaking such infrastructure upgrades is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, but it’s a must if the overall experience is going to be made better for shoppers. That’s the only way to execute consistency at scale!

Heidi Sax
BrainTrust

I worked as a vendor for several years in Macy’s. I couldn’t help customers by doing things like looking up inventory levels or ringing up sales. I ensured that the experience when customers visited our shop-in-shop was as close to being in a branded store as possible … but only to the extent of visual merchandising standards and sales associate training. This is simply the nature of selling your wares in a store that’s not company-owned. Thus leading brands (like Nike) are culling their retail partners roster in order to exact more control over the shopping experience.

With the rise of direct-to-consumer brands and the closures of underperforming stores across a wide range of retail chains, more retailers will be bypassing this problem by only having a retail presence in places they can tightly control the in-store experience.

Josh Clouser
Guest

I’ve seen it often, that the enthusiasm and energy of the visionaries and managers often think of the end of the customer experience at purchase. This limited vantage leads to incomplete customer journeys, and ultimately, customer dissatisfaction when not properly scoped. In these scenarios, when a customer has a bad experience, all parties lose. Ultimately, the customer’s experience needs to be managed intentionally and thoughtfully to ensure it is positive.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"The industry can’t just decide to forge these alliances without properly addressing every possible sticky point, and how it will be best handled."
"The buck stops with whoever’s name is on the store. "
"Customers don’t understand, nor do they care, that associates on the sales floor might not work in that department, or even the store."

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