Guest Slot – Analysis Insider – Sarah Wilson

When Starbucks decided to get a bit more intimate with its customers it took to writing their names on its paper coffee cups. While this might have worked on some levels it quickly began to look a little bit too prescriptive.

Not that nice.

Such initiatives highlight how tough it can be for large companies to suddenly go all touchy feely and get ‘in-tune’ with their customers. What today’s consumers really want from retailers’ employees is for them to be free in the way they act, which ultimately leads to a more natural style of customer service.

For smaller start-ups this will sound perfectly sensible but for large traditional retailers it will potentially conjure up their worst nightmare. Retail models are very rigid and merchants love their rules. If a person works in a store or in a call centre then there will be very specific rules assigned to how they deliver customer service.

In contrast, newer businesses have a very different sense of what’s right for the customer. They allow more customer service decisions to be made on the ground – as long as the employee feels it is the right thing to do.

This agile and personalised approach to customer service mirrors the way that social media has opened up immediate and interactive communication channels between consumers, brands and retailers.

The adoption of mobile devices allied with the utilisation of Twitter and Facebook have presented consumers with many ways to give feedback on the levels of customer service they receive and in a much more direct way.

This is very difficult to manage under old customer service rules and when combined with the development of multi-channel the complexity of dealing with consumers is a growing issue for traditional retailers.

The answer is to make their models much more responsive and to create boundaries where appropriate but allowing gut-feel to operate within those boundaries.  This will lead to retailers being more in-tune with their customers and enable them to convey more of a sense that they are giving their customers what they want and what they need – and in a timely manner.

The implication is that larger retailers need to get more comfortable with having less rules.  The implication of this is that organisations need to recruit people with real customer empathy.
With multi-channel there has to also be an understanding of the specific types of people that retailers need across their various channels and to seek out these relevant individuals.

Retailers must then work on how they communicate with their staff on an ongoing basis and also how they train them in order that they empower them to act instinctively when dealing with customers.

Decision makers don’t always have the answer.

What makes any such changes particularly tough is the fact the key decision makers in retail businesses are typically the people with the least amount of customer interface time. Despite this backdrop, things must change.

But it’s not really happening and as such, big organisations are sleep walking into change while newer competitors are growing fast at their expense. The incumbents remain hampered by their old ways of working and out-dated rules.

For many years people have talked about customer service being a key differentiator and it has definitely been the case. But with social media and multi-channel forcing the pace of change in the industry it is essential that retailers now take a fresh look at how they are defining and delivering customer service today.

It needs to be delivered at an exemplary level across all channels and we are defining exemplary as being individual rather than prescriptive and heart-felt rather than machine-like. What’s sure is that the answer is certainly not written on the side of a paper cup.

Sponsored column by Sarah Wilson, retail specialist at consultancy Egremont Group