Why is translating analog customer service to digital so complicated?

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Aug 15, 2018

Elaine Kleinschmidt, EVP, Strategy & Experience Design, WD Partners

Through a special arrangement, what follows is an excerpt of an article from WayfinD, a quarterly e-magazine filled with insights, trends and predictions from the retail and foodservice experts at WD Partners.

What consumers want from a store experience will always be recognizable. They want well-trained and informed people to talk to and welcome them into a retail space and, yes, they still want this even when what constitutes a store becomes unrecognizable.

And that’s the hard part, transitioning away from an analog definition of what customer service means. What does and doesn’t constitute great customer service has morphed in both detail and form in the digital age. There are some daunting expectations. Shoppers have been primed by Amazon Prime, a cornball-y if apt pun. Even five years ago, what has since become a baseline expectation would have sounded like a ridiculous and Herculean demand: She likes that pair of sheepskin-lined boots, but you don’t have her size in stock. Better find a way to get them on her doorstep in 24 hours or less.

Customer service once encompassed a rather simple directive: Just be nice to people. This principle still applies. But customers now judge a physical store experience through the lens of all e-commerce experiences. And that’s why the bar keeps getting higher.

In the chart below, we outline the shifting meanings of customer service as the digital lens alters consumer expectations.

In short, customer service isn’t the only thing, it’s just the No. 1 thing. The possibilities offered by technology are both disruptive and distracting. But stores with a loyal customer base who meet expectations with exceptional service first can hedge against Amazon’s price-driven and transactional approach.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you agree that the physical store experience is now being judged through the lens of e-commerce experiences? Why do many retailers struggle to extend their expertise in analog customer service to digital experiences?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Stores that lead the charge here can dominate customer experience."
"Shoppers know how seamless the online experience is, and they expect either something similar or a different value-add in-store. "
"We have to somehow break free from the legacy mindset that consumers “go online” to shop or engage with customer service agents."

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26 Comments on "Why is translating analog customer service to digital so complicated?"


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Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust

Do customers judge store experience based on digital experiences? Yes and no. Customers no longer see channels. Retail today is a “phygital” experience where customers expect service. When they have an exact item they want, they demand it to be in stock available for quick delivery. They expect an online experience that follows them to the store, with efficient click and collect options. However, when they are researching a “considered purchase” there is no substitute for “analog” experiences in-store.

Other than Walmart, no retailer can compete with the Amazon digital ecosystem. But retailers can use the power of talented associates to create a phygital experience that Amazon has not yet achieved.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

Digital puts a magnifying glass over analog approaches. Investors’ visibility and service methods take on more urgency with higher consumer expectations. Systems have to express corporate memory and making more information and images available draws more attention to the product and away from the associates, who have to up their game.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust
“Judged” is not quite the right word. “Having expectations set” is perhaps a better way to think about it. If my grocery store doesn’t have the brand I like I no longer just pick the other brand, I open the Amazon app on my phone while standing at the shelf and see if they have it instead. If the clothing store doesn’t have pants in my kid’s size I don’t ask a sales associate for help, I search online. If the retailer’s lucky, I’m searching their site. But it’s more likely that I’ve opened the search up to all retailers who might have the size I’m looking for. And certainly I’m not willing to go to ten different pads in a department store to find a dress, just because the department store has to present brand groupings — I’ll go online first, because then I can view the assortment how I want to view it and not how the retailer wants to present it to me. These are all examples where digital has set the… Read more »
Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

I think many retailers struggle with service, period. For the most part, it is because they are not entirely customer-centric; they are slaves to outdated systems, operations or ways of thinking.

Digital has certainly raised expectations, but it’s not the only factor. Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, consumers are busier, more demanding of value, have a lot more choice, need less product and so forth. All of these things have driven changes to consumer culture.

Charles Dimov
BrainTrust

Today’s physical store experience is already online. Customers are using smartphones to double-check pricing, look up specifications, find the stores that have their size and check return policies. In effect, YES, I think customers are expecting the two experiences to be the same. They won’t think about it, they will just expect it. Frankly, it is all the more reason that all retailers need to offer omnichannel experiences. Otherwise customer will pick up on the disconnects, leaving the retailer to wonder why sales keep declining.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust
E-commerce often works as a tool that customers can use to research before going into a store, as well as after if they didn’t make the purchase. For decades, many retailers were able to put out anything in their stores they thought they could make a profit on regardless of quality or value. E-commerce has made consumers able to check for themselves what is valuable and worth the money. Smart retailers know this and are using it to their advantage. However, I want to make another point about the chart in the article. There are two types of shoppers. The first group is made up of consumers who insist on sitting on the couch and will avoid a store at all cost. This shopper is not going to change regardless of what a store may offer. However, the second group is made up of consumers who actually “enjoy” shopping. They enjoy going to the mall, walking around, browsing and seeing items before deciding on purchasing. That group remains quite large, which is why the bulk… Read more »
Jeff Sward
Guest

Of course the physical store experience is being judged through a whole new lens. Customers KNOW more when they walk in the door today than what they did just a few short years ago. They’ve already shopped online. Or they will while in the store or later that day. So if the retailer doesn’t convert the sale while the customer is physically there, the whole universe becomes competition the instant they walk out the door. So it has got to be made easy for the customer while in the store. Compelling, distinctive product presented in a manner that makes it easy for the customer to jump to “yes.” That does not bode well for oceans of racks in department stores. (Same ocean at discount stores … cheaper prices.) Engage the senses! That’s the competitive edge against a phone or computer screen! People FEEL faster than they THINK. Use that!

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

Without question, the way digital interactions can leverage rich data to deliver highly-informed and personalized interactions has raised the bar for store interactions. Those expectations are warranted (and realistic) and the truth is, they are only going to increase over time. I believe the industry is gearing up to meet these expectations head on, as associate empowerment is a constant theme in my discussions with retailers in our client base. As such, I am very optimistic that serious progress will be made toward more enriching, more engaging and more empowered store experiences in the very near future.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

We have to somehow break free from the legacy mindset that consumers “go online” to shop or engage with customer service agents. They simply shop or get their customer service problem solved one way or another. Customers may seamlessly engage with a brand across any platform, digital or physical, yet that experience has to be consistent.

The retailers that get all aspects of the customer experience journey right know that the digital-first mindset means that the customer can and will engage with your brand at any time. They are no longer limited to calling customer service or going to a physical location to have their problem solved.

The key is to know your customers, leverage these insights to remain one step ahead of them and realize that the shopping journey is changing dramatically.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

To a degree, the customer judges the store through the lens of e-commerce experiences. However, as AI matures — and that won’t happen overnight — and is adopted by more and more retailers, they will be able to translate their analog expertise into digital experiences, that is one of the potential goals of AI. Unless we are on the cusp of a Darwinian mutation, let us not forget that we are social animals and we enjoy being with other animals. The question is, are we going to continue to go to stores for a social experience, or spend or social capital in other places?

Jennifer McDermott
BrainTrust

The personal, human touch in retail remains important, however many stores unfortunately are already flagging in this respect so I wouldn’t be surprised if customers start to prefer a more digital experience which always greets them, is courteous and responsive to queries. Stores that lead the charge here can dominate customer experience.

David Weinand
BrainTrust

The physical store experience is being judged by a lot more than e-commerce. Customer service is no longer defined by just retail or a retailer’s category competition. Uber and AirBnB have redefined the meaning of convenience, choice and payment. Hema in China is redefining the way to shop for groceries. Disney redefined the guest experience with their bands. This all contributes to a redefined set of expectations that brick-and-mortar retailers have to grapple with and build strategies around. They really need to build out a completely new set of buyer personas for their shopper and then develop their store experience based on those definitions. Difficult? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

The feeling of experience is in the mind of the consumer. Shopping is social and, for many, an escape. The real measuring rod for brick-and-mortar is the interaction — better yet, the moments of truth that occur in the first few minutes of a store visit and thereafter. I am not talking about a greeter at the front door. I am referring to trained and excited store representatives that interact with the customer. A good idea for brick-and-mortar retailers is to greet and treat the customer the same as you would if it were your mother or father. The internet has created the expectation levels demanded by customers, and brick-and-mortar sites must analyze all touch points and make sure they do all they can to compare favorably in creating great social experiences.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

With wages, supply chain and other expenses increasing, the first thing to get cut is store-level customer service staffing. That’s a primary reason for so many retailers not taking the in-store shopping experience seriously, compared to their online presence. We’re actually seeing better online experiences versus in-store experiences, which is contrary to some statements in this article. Neither are perfect, yet as technology further enables both online and offline shopping, the innovators will find ways to mitigate rising costs to provide excellent shopping journeys wherever shoppers shop.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Comparing the physical in-store experience to a digital service experience is tough because you are not comparing apples to apples. Customer service can be good or bad in both places, but it’s never going to be the same and I think consumers understand that.

People who prefer to shop in brick-and-mortar stores want instant gratification; they enjoy the physical experience and like to interact with store associates. Online shopping is easy and it’s instant gratification in a different way. “Found it!” comes faster, receiving it and hoping it’s what you thought you ordered can take a few days.

Consumer choice is now endless; digital has raised the bar and changed how we shop. Digital augments my shopping experience, but it will never completely replace what happens on the sales floor in a good store.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

As digital technology emerged retailers and brands simply digitized what they had been doing for years. Digital was seen as just a way to do traditional retailing “better and faster.” Being digital, as Nicholas Negroponte noted in his 1995 (!!) book, meant that we needed to re-engineer the way we thought and approached the way we did everything. Simply digitizing the status quo was missing the tremendous potential of being digital. There is no doubt that exceptional e-commerce customer service experiences drive our expectations, but it is important not to define customer service as either digital or analog. We all want to be respected and expect people to do the right thing — regardless of the interaction or human experience. It’s one of those inalienable rights. As shoppers, we expect no less — regardless of the type or manner of interaction.

Joanna Rutter
BrainTrust
6 months 4 days ago

This topic brings to mind Nikki Baird’s excellent article “Retail’s Technical Debt Comes True,” which I truly think about once a day. I highly recommend the read. The thesis of her piece is that retail’s data lives in store-localized piles, made up of billions of data points that are difficult to transmit and analyze and act on quickly (where making the choice between investing in bandwidth vs. hardware at the store level has locked retailers in to bad systems of storage and communication of data), with each bad IT decision tacking on additional “debt” that comes back to bite the retailer later.

Retailers struggle to reconcile online and offline due to bad technology that was implemented hastily, promised a silver bullet, and couldn’t evolve fast enough, stranding their most valuable data in printed-out spreadsheets in a file folder in the back room of their stores. I agree with Nikki’s conclusion, which is that the next wave of retail revolution will come only as retailers reckon with their technical debt, or else be swallowed by it.

Susan O'Neal
BrainTrust
6 months 4 days ago
All of Elaine’s points are absolutely spot on. They’re also incredibly daunting. Even if you have deep wells of cash to throw the topic of “customer service,” the one-sided nature of today’s definition of “good customer service” in the digital era isn’t very inspiring. Imagine a painting of the all-powerful customer threatening to take her business elsewhere if the groveling retailer doesn’t give her exactly what she wants, in the size and color she wants, exactly where she wants it, in less than 24 hours — every time. Many retailers I talk with are so demoralized by the high hurdles of authentic loyalty (the kind of loyalty that might, say, forgive a mistake or an inefficiency) that they have to actively “not care” beyond the boundaries of their job description and budget. This is no way to life a life, no way to build a career and no way to compete! But what if we evolved of the concept of customer service and took it up a notch? In fact, I’d like you to consider… Read more »
Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

People still live in a physical environment and shop for physical items. We must recognize that not everything digitizes.

That said, I am VERY concerned by the way e-commerce attempts to buy consumer loyalty with experience that is not economically feasible — like Amazon Prime.

Amazon Prime raises expectations for customer service to an exceptionally unprofitable level. Amazon survives that for the moment because they operate at a retail loss (and eke out a small profit mostly from the tiniest portion of their business — AWS).

Those expectations cannot last — but it’s no easy feat to undo.

So is the physical store experience judged through that lens? Only in terms of customer service expectations. Otherwise, it’s a physical world with physical people buying physical products. Let’s accept that.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust
Does anyone else read that list of customer service before (when the store was in charge) and think yeah maybe we could have made it a better experience for customers? “Scroll through a thousand options?” “We might have that in stock for you” “Wait in service line” — why so little respect for the customer’s time? Why so much emphasis on effort from their side? It’s hardly surprising then that a lot of customers found e-commerce made for a better shopping experience, and why they now expect a higher level of service in-store too. Because they’ve seen that they don’t have to wait in line pointlessly, or walk half a mile, or have their time wasted because things aren’t in stock, etc. I don’t think we should be wishing to go back to the good old days when we didn’t treat customers very well. We should be thinking about how we can treat them better in stores now. Being nice to people is a good start, but how about being considerate too? Be mindful of… Read more »
Ray Riley
BrainTrust

For years brand agencies, retail technology firms and disassociated retail C-suites have been attempting to put “the best of online retail” into physical retail. Now the opposite trend is beginning, where human service is being leveraged in digital channels. To repeat much of what has been said: Yes online can have the commoditized staple purchases. Yes customers are channel blind. Yes, the physical in-store experience is expected to be seamless! Plain and simple: the gap between the customer’s expectation of the retail sales associate’s expertise and the retailer’s level of investment in said expertise has never been larger. That is the challenge for physical retail in the future as technology gets stronger and stronger. There will always be stores, but they can’t operate like it’s the year 2000.

Min-Jee Hwang
BrainTrust

We’re well into the instant-gratification world of retail, across all channels. The physical store experience is certainly being compared to e-commerce, but more in the sense of expectations. Shoppers know how seamless the online experience is, and they expect either something similar or a different value-add in-store. Retailers should embrace the omnichannel experience so shoppers can have their cake and eat it too, but they also need to remember what makes in-store appealing — well-trained associates, friendly service and the ability to see, feel and try a product before buying.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust
Online shoppers have become accustomed to features such as product reviews, extensive choices, one-click transaction processing, and personalized recommendations. Consumers now expect the same level of personalized service they receive online when they shop in a physical store. The technology exists to infuse digital capabilities into the physical store that enable retailers to offer customers personalized recommendations based on customer context that incorporates data from all channels in real-time the same way Amazon does it but in-store. The obstacle for many retailer is that their data and systems are in distributed channel silos, which makes it difficult to access in real-time. Without real-time information, you inventory and customer information is not accurate and you can’t offer customers the service they expect. Unified commerce is the cornerstone for delivering the holistic real-time customer experience by breaking down the walls between internal channel silos and leveraging a common commerce platform. A unified commerce platform is not simply the future in-store or Web platform, but combines in-store POS, mobile, Web, order management, call center and clienteling into one… Read more »
Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

The distinction between digital and physical shopping experiences have lost their meaning to today’s consumer. There is only “the shopping experience” it is neither digital nor physical exclusively, but both at the same time, intertwined with each other and inseparable. Today’s consumers have blurred the shopping experience across channels (a term which only meant something to retailers, not shoppers).

Yes, expectations have risen not just because of e-commerce alone but because retailers like Amazon, Apple, and services brands like Uber and Airbnb have changed the paradigm of what consumers expect to receive for their money. Yes, the bar is being raised higher and higher and retailers must adapt to survive.

David Thomas
Guest
6 months 3 days ago

My most basic point. Get out your smartphone in a store and put a product in front of it. What benefit do you get? No augmented label, no added information related to your own preferences or needs, no connection with the producer or their passion, nothing.

Now think, if when the product appeared in front of your smartphone, things started happening. Your principle preferences were denoted, the augmented label fired up, the library of content appeared in the side bar — and the producers saw you were browsing and the retailer could send over an assistant, and so on and on.

What is this about? Labels. That is all, simply bringing the label into the 21st century would revolutionise retail in an instant. More if you wish…

Chris Weigand
Guest
6 months 3 days ago

We’re in such a great time period right now in terms of retail customer experience both online and in store. There are retailers, brands and providers who are doing great and those who are doing not so great. I don’t think good customer service is exclusive to either arena, e-commerce or physical store; some are still in the before column and some in the after column. Ultimately consumers just assume the retailer has all their info, will match prices, provide accurate decision making information, and provide products and services we expect. E-commerce in general has a way to go with user experience and customer service. There’s never been any doubt of technical capabilities but now we must infuse human factors and human behavior into the e-commerce realm.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Stores that lead the charge here can dominate customer experience."
"Shoppers know how seamless the online experience is, and they expect either something similar or a different value-add in-store. "
"We have to somehow break free from the legacy mindset that consumers “go online” to shop or engage with customer service agents."

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