“Companies will invest in digital customer experiences to improve experiences for all customers and employees.” – Brian Solis
I’m a huge proponent of the power of digital transformation to help brick and mortar retailers adapt to a world where Amazon dominates e-commerce and is beginning to make inroads into physical retail. The technologies of digital engagement and Big Data Analytics bring much needed parity to traditional retailers’ efforts to create and deliver a differentiated customer experience.
While much attention is paid to technology to serve the digital consumer, often lost in the conversation are the employees who walk the aisles, stock the shelves, answer customer questions and facilitate transactions, all face-to-face with real people.
Some of the points made by Brian Solis in “26 Disruptive Tech Trends for 2016-18” refer to the role of employees in the changes affecting many industries. For retailers, I don’t think this is a fine point – I think employees may be the point in digital transformation success.
Technologies such as mobile applications, Beacons, geo-fencing, inventory access and self-check out all help retailers create an in-store experience much like a website. Personalization, convenience and speed are all attributes of the modern shopping experience that consumers crave. The recent National Retail Federation Big Show demonstrated retailers’ focus on crafting seamless experiences that take advantage of digitally engaging shoppers in the store environment.
I think a large part of doing this successfully involves bringing employees, or store associates, into the fold in order to add further differentiation to the customer experience. After all, what if Amazon were to acquire retailers in all major categories and stitch them into an ecosystem offering immense personalization, low cost and superior convenience?
Whether Amazon builds its brick and mortar business itself or buys its way in, I think the “writing’s on the wall” for retailers – which is, differentiate in ways that matter to your customers. Your stores and the employees who operate them day to day represent what is arguably most retailers’ best opportunity to differentiate and win.
In the past, a lot of retail differentiation lied with store associates and their interpersonal interactions with customers. Retail is a services business. Over time, retail has declined in this regard, even if the industry is among the largest employers. Low pay, high turnover positions do not typically yield the kind of empathetic “brand ambassadors” exemplified by the Apple Store. I think they could though.
For me, and I expect for many consumers, the role of the store associate cannot be replaced with technology. On some level we all crave some degree of person-to-person interaction when making all manner of shopping decisions – no matter how well researched beforehand online.
Corporate culture, training and good management all contribute to an employee base capable of carrying the retail brand’s torch into any customer interaction. When it comes to technologies designed to facilitate a satisfying shopping experience, it doesn’t take a lot more effort to ensure that employees are equally well served by the technology. In this way the likelihood of investments in culture, training and management actually working increases greatly.
I’m referring to the many challenges retail employees face that prevent them from delivering on the retailer’s brand promise of an excellent customer experience. More time spent helping a customer achieve a positive outcome, and less energy spent checking on item availability, being caught off-guard by customers asking product questions or for recommendations, means a base of employees far more likely to adhere to digital transformation goals.
Happier employees churn less and are far more likely to help – not hinder – a retailer’s efforts to craft seamless shopping experiences based on the customer collaboration and empathy Brain writes about in his post. These are tough jobs that often go underappreciated.
As traditional retailers invest in stitching together their virtual and physical stores, while Amazon begins moves into the physical world, it’s the last mile of the shopping journey in a face to face situation where most money continues to flow. Making sure the needs of store associates are considered within digital transformation efforts is a good way to ensure these investments pay off.