It’s a tale as old as internet time. A customer walks into a store having researched dozens of next-generation workout pants or their next phone upgrade. They’ve polled their Facebook friends for recommendations and pored over a host of reviews. When they arrive at the store, they’re about 85 percent ready to make the purchase.
They have questions about how or where the pants were made, and how the fabric washes, that the associate is unable to answer. So in the home stretch they leave, feeling a seed of doubt and without the item they came in for, much less anything extra. Everyone is frustrated, and your brand might be seconds away from a social media dress-down.
Technology, which can be as rudimentary as online search and as sophisticated as augmented reality, has made customers more informed and prepared than ever, before they even set foot in a store. They can BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store) all the livelong day. It’s great for the consumer—with any luck—but can be challenging for retailers.
On a the macro level, the pressure is on for retailers to the deliver optimal, brand-right, seamless experiences for customers, sometimes across borders and time zones. This has meant rolling out technology solutions, mood lighting, or even boxed water and charging stations in brick-and-mortar locations in the name of experience. On a micro level, it’s up to individual store associates to deliver a level of expertise that stands toe to toe with even the most fervent, well-researched consumer.
The pressure is on for retailers to the deliver optimal, brand-right, seamless experiences for customers, sometimes across borders and time zones.
As companies rightly obsess over the experience they’re providing customers every step of the way, it’s clear that they should obsess equally over giving front-line employees the tools to deliver a brand vision.
Retailers are connecting the dots
In 2018, at the National Retail Federation Big Show, the opening keynote proclaimed that the “word of the moment was experience.” A year later, the word of the moment was still experience—but it came with an important nod to the employees and, ultimately, the company culture that makes that experience happen.
During breakout sessions at the 2019 conference, leaders from Tiffany’s, LUSH, and David’s Tea, among others, confirmed that retailers are taking note, agreeing that employees need to feel more confident and knowledgeable before they’re able to engage meaningfully with a customer.
Good timing, too, as there are real dollars and cents are at stake. The share of sales that is “digitally influenced” is growing dramatically, according to Joel Percy, Chief Strategic Consultant at ciVALUE, presenting on a panel about customer loyalty. That’s not just e-commerce transactions; the upward trend includes purchases by ardent researchers and recommendation-seekers who walk into a store knowing exactly (or close to it) what they want.
In another session, Luciano Rodembusch, SVP of Tiffany & Co. Americas, says positive customer experience is the result of an employee who is driven to exceed expectations, someone who is prepared and passionate about connecting with customers.
“If that connection exists, a conversation will start, then naturally a sale will happen,” he said.
U.K.-based LUSH, with its intoxicating displays of bath, beauty, and skincare products, takes the same approach. Speaking in yet another session, Lindsay Nelson, LUSH retail communications manager, tipped her hat to well-trained, invested employees on the front line who execute the brand vision for customers by demonstrating the bath bomb or making informed recommendations for things like combatting limp hair.
“We believe that if you arm your store teams with the knowledge of the brand vision and product education, and you give those associates information about what that brand promise is, and how they bring it to life, that will drive the brand experience in store,” Nelson said.
Using tech to empower, not oversee
The retail workforce is increasingly supported by technology that facilitates scheduling and internal communication, among other responsibilities, freeing front line associates in particular to focus on becoming product experts and, in turn, using that knowledge to make connections with customers.
But there’s a difference between deploying technology to empower employees versus managing staff, and savvy employees will be able to tell the difference. Melissa Wong, CEO and founder of Zipline, who co-presented with Nelson, said this is exactly what her solution does. By streamlining communications and task management on the back end, customer-facing execution improves and employee engagement increases. Life before implementing Zipline at LUSH, Nelson said, was a jumble of voicemail, paper calendars, email, and internal intranet, which left store managers (metaphorically) pulling out their hair. Today, LUSH employees access a real-time calendar, an emoji-peppered message board, and save an approximate 30 minutes each day in prep time—time that can be redirected toward supporting customer needs.
But there's a difference between deploying technology to empower employees versus managing staff, and savvy employees will be able to tell the difference.
Implementing technology requires careful vetting, however, and change management. Some Tiffany’s associates, for example, have spent 25 to 30 years managing clients through entries in a black book, Rodembusch said. The company implemented technology that ended up being more burdensome than streamlining. The lesson for them was the importance of taking a step back and discussing any potential or chosen solutions with employees. At LUSH, Nelson said it was essential to bring the voice of the stores to the decision-makers, as solutions can sometimes be approved in a vacuum, without consulting those in the field.
Increased employee expectations of employers
Just as customers hold brands to higher standards of social, economic, and environmental responsibility, employees are doing the same. Employees expect more from their employers and deserve an experience that empowers them to speak for the brand from an informed, passionate place; in sum, you can’t fake it, said Jordan Ekers, co-founder and Chief Customer Officer of Nudge Rewards, during the panel about employee experience.
April Sabral, VP of retail sales and operations at David’s Tea, agreed: “Retail is ultimately [about] making people feel good, and that starts with every single one of us, and every single person on the team.”