American consumers are ready to spend again – finally. And retailers are busy offering new or improved ways for them to do so. With the clear trend of shoppers embracing digital channels – coupled with the immense opportunities generated by physical store foot traffic – the level of quality customer service in retail stores is a crucial factor in understanding why…and more specifically how to lure more customers back to brick-and-mortar shopping.
A Missed Opportunity
The appeal of on-line shopping is stronger than ever with free shipping, quicker-than-ever delivery, and online only deals. The indifference of store personnel, shelves in disarray, and/or long checkout lines only provide more incentive to stay home and logon to buy gifts.
However, the flip side of this challenge is an opportunity that seemingly hasn’t been taken by many retailers – a path forward down the road less taken. This opportunity involves focused attention to investing in the personal development of retail store employees. This path can improve the productivity and engagement of customer facing associates and ultimately lead to better customer interactions and satisfaction.
A highly satisfied and engaged employee will improve in-store sales and bottom line performance. This is all possible by taking the view that interpersonal interaction within the store is an area of differentiation and competitive advantage.
The one retail principle that hasn’t changed is the importance of customer service. However, customer service in retail is often uninspiring at best – particularly during the hurried and frenzied holiday shopping season.
Companies work very hard on creating brand differentiation and their unique value propositions. In today’s era, retailers promote this differentiation by leveraging their digital footprints, amplified by traditional marketing techniques, in-store signage, and merchandising. However, many fail to capitalize on the fact that every customer who ventures into a store receives an intimate impression of that brand that is enabled by store personnel – and this can prove to be the true differentiator. Even the lack of interaction creates an impression.
Investment in the retailer’s customer facing people, not just training but investment, has been lacking. This potentially reflects the low value that retailers place on these resources – perceived or real – and represents a huge missed opportunity.
Retail investments have been heavily skewed towards emerging technology, often in solutions and systems integration that merge channels into a singular experience for the customer. This indeed is necessary to accommodate how today’s customers shop throughout a retailer’s different channels, with the additional goals of executing pricing strategies and ensuring inventory visibility, accuracy, and availability.
Still, bricks-and-mortar retailers are trying to catch up with companies like Amazon who provide ultra-convenient (though highly impersonal) experiences. Competing with Amazon at their game seems like a fool’s errand for a traditional bricks-and-mortar retailer.
Sure, there are tactics retailers can use to try to improve sales: scripted phrases to encourage complementary items and increase basket sizes, up-selling techniques, and rah-rah pep talks before a big event like Black Friday. While the frequency of these tactics may be measurable, they’re not authentic to the vast number of store associates. They don’t come from a place of the employee truly wanting to assist the customer.
Leveraging Physical Stores for Customer Experience
Most shoppers aren’t ready to make a clean break from traditional in-store shopping to on-line, at least not for this year’s holiday shopping. RIS News reported that in-store results were on the upward trend for 2017 based on the recent Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
What stores offer above their on-line only competitors is the power to relate to customers and create an interpersonal experience that can leave a lasting impression. This human-to-human interaction has the possibility to create emotion, and – when positive – results in a positive impression of the brand.
Recent trends show Americans are spending money on distinct experiences over physical things. Retailers should capitalize on this trend and put much more focus on delivering highly unique and memorable experiences in their stores.
When retailers look to their store associates to deliver a positive interpersonal experience, they’ll correctly realize their staff needs additional support in order to do so. Retailers must take the perspective that their hourly store associates are people to be developed, which will require mentoring, providing a specific direction, and measuring outcomes.
Underpinning this point, Austin Carr in Fast Company says, “The truth is that the bigger Amazon gets, the more opportunity it creates for fresh, local alternatives. The more Amazon pushes robot-powered efficiency, the more space there is for warm and individualized service. The more that people interact with Amazon through its AI-based assistant Alexa, the more they will crave the insight and personal connection of fellow humans.”
Investing in Store Associates: 3 Areas of Focus
Three critical components in a path of investing in store associates, and ultimately the customer’s in-store experience, include:
1. Get to Know Store Associates. Retailers can give store management the tools by which they can get to know and understand their employees better and use those insights to make more strategic decisions in assigning work tasks. Multiple free or low-cost assessments, including StrengthsFinder and DISC, are readily accessible. After a small start-up investment in the assessment and education on interpreting the results, store managers would be able to leverage each employee’s strengths in ways that energize them and increase their engagement in their day-to-day tasks.
It is possible, in the high turn-over world of retail, that store staff will get the training and leave, potentially negating the small investment in them. However, this approach will lead to higher employee engagement and satisfaction – and more reason to stay.
2. Get Associate Feedback. On a regular basis, store managers should touch base with each employee about their tasks and their satisfaction, encourage honest feedback, and make adjustments. The cadence should be weekly or bi-weekly, depending on how many or how few hours the associate works, and needs to be only a ten to fifteen-minute casual conversation. The objective is to hear from the associate how the assigned tasks, or approaches to tasks, are going. Taking into account the assessment results, an approach to required tasks can be adjusted to fit the associate better.
3. Train Your Store Managers to be Coaches. Store managers will need training and on-going coaching themselves, in order to learn necessary coaching skills and be able to understand the chosen assessment. Store managers who get more out of their teams in terms of productivity, engagement, and positive customer interactions will be the ones who add more value to the company and lend their skills to even larger teams.
Adding the mentoring and training of associates, over time, reduces workload for the management staff. Ensuring associates are working according to their strengths prevents many problems caused by disengaged employees doing energy-draining jobs.
Typically, this level of investment is done only within the corporate halls, with the rationale that the decisions that corporate management are making are of higher value. However, this mindset severely underestimates the benefits that a highly engaged store team can provide to customers, top line revenue, and bottom line results.
Despite the dire forecasts for the retail industry that regularly appear in the news, there is a way forward. This path less chosen involves investing in the people in critical customer facing roles, getting to know them in a more individual way, and letting their strengths, in part, guide their activities in the stores.
David Williams, Guest Contributor
About David. David Williams is a contributor at Paceline Services which explores enabling engagement in front-line employees by discovering strengths and approaching job responsibilities on those attributes through coaching and consulting. Additionally, as Solution Director at Analytics8 he brings advanced analytics, data visualizations and comprehensive data warehouse solutions to innovative companies in all industries. David’s extensive background in retail spans over 15 years and includes working with such retailers as Gap, Inc., TJX, Gander Mountain, Barnes and Noble College, and Orscheln Farm and Home.