A recent discussion with my kids made me think about how much has changed in the customer service world (and in the expectations of customers) in the last five years. Let’s take an example – picture yourself in 2007. You’re at a retail store (perhaps BestBuy) in search of an item (a new computer monitor or an interesting accessory.) Upon arriving to the store, you find an associate, who tells you that the item is out of stock; suggests an alternative; and waits while you make a decision. If the service experience is good or bad, you might not remember to write it down, blog about it, or offer praise or complain to the retailer later.
Compare that to your experience today when you can use Decide to determine whether or not to buy the item you’re seeking; Amazon to purchase the item, and any one of a million services to share directly with the manufacturer of the item how you’re feeling and whether you like what you bought. So, what happened to the retailer? They were cut out of the loop by the creative destruction of the market they used to inhabit. And what happened to you? You gained speed, utility, and choice, and the ability to find the right item for you at the time that you wanted it. And you’ve also lost the tactile ability to touch and review the item; the social interaction of actually paying for the thing in the store, and the opportunity to interact with an expert in real time who can help improve your choice.
(No, I’m not suggesting that going to the retail store was better, but that it’s very different from the retail shopping experience we have today.) What’s a retailer to do to stay relevant to the customers that want more information; the customers that would prefer to buy whenever and wherever they are, and the customer who’s just not sure?
One way that retailers can provide superior service is to engage in conversations with people who care about the products they’re trying to sell. (Yeah, you say to yourself, what does “engaging” mean in this situation and why does it matter anyway?) Having real conversations with real people – via Skype, Twitter, Facebook, or pick your medium – builds empathy and brand loyalty. You’re never going to be able to compete with Amazon or NewEgg or Buy.com on price. And you can compete with them by being the best source of information and conversation around a specialized topic (making coffee, being gluten free, what are the best stereo speakers, etc.) and by taking a cut of affiliate revenue (either directly by selling goods or indirectly by driving targeted, quantified business elsewhere).
Another way retailers can provide superior service is to put people on the front lines who care and who are able to fix problems (either through a flexible policy or a fixed dollar amount in budget) so that the inevitable breaks in service don’t cause your customers to think that one bad experience defines your company for them. If you don’t trust that front-line employee, do it yourself or find someone you can trust to implement the idea, quantify and qualify the results, and share them with you regularly.
Finally, retailers (including Best Buy, who led beautifully in providing social media contacts through its Blue Shirt initiative and had trouble following up and providing a similar positive experience in-store) can just ask themselves a really simple question: “if I came to this store, would I want to shop here instead of at one of our competitors?” If you don’t have at least 3 reasons that make your shopping experience 10x better than your competitors, your customer isn’t going to want to shop there either.