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What’s to blame for the downfall of the retail experience we once knew?

As with most things, it’s not a simple answer. No more than ten minutes of thought will present you with a handful of potential reasons, and those reasons will be different for each of us.

For example, yes, we can place much of the blame at the door of the pandemic. We can also cite the economy, more recently the fuel crisis, greed… I could go on, but I won’t. Because a discussion I’ve realised comes up too often (certainly in our office) is, I believe, ‘up there’ in the list of reasons we need to take positive action before it’s too late.

That reason? Customer Service – or rather the lack of it. Therefore in this article, I want to share my thoughts on the subject and invite you to respond.

Why real shopping is preferable to online

We choose to shop in our high streets, shopping centres and retail parks because we benefit from:

  • the experience of seeing and touching items before purchasing

  • the mental stimulation of interacting with our fellow humans

  • the opportunity to combine several leisure activities: shopping, dining, cinema for example

  • increased levels of customer service because it’s more personal (than online)

However, today, would you agree that the last point is falling woefully short of expectations and could continue tipping the balance towards online shopping as the preferred way to shop? Because the reality is: the customer service we experience online is moving ahead of the offline experience. And fast.

Are we setting expectations too high?

You could potentially argue that our perception of customer service depends on our age.

That’s true, to an extent. But 84% of our experience as a customer is emotional. Therefore, it makes sense for retailers to appeal to these emotions and build rapport with us so we feel positive about our experience with them – whatever our age. And yet, they don’t.

Let me give you a personal example (although if you talk to anyone in our office or yours, you’ll undoubtedly be regaled with plenty more horror stories). The subject of this negative experience is a large, global car dealership. I won’t name them; I’ll just reiterate, they’re big and should know better!

My wife and I were considering buying a new car, so we went down to the ‘unnamed’ dealership because we already own one of their cars. However, this time, we wanted to explore electric car options. Despite an almost guaranteed sale, the woman who served us was utterly disinterested in us. She did not know what she was doing and was reading from a book to answer our questions – and trust me, we were not asking anything complicated.

My wife was understandably annoyed with the level of service; after all, we had clearly indicated we wanted to purchase a car if the few questions we had could be answered. So, she phoned the dealership to express her dissatisfaction. The reply went something like this: this has never happened before, we can’t understand why you think that’s unacceptable service.

Basically, they considered my wife to be the guilty party. How could they have put it right? In our opinion, all that was necessary was for the guy on the phone to say, “I’m terribly sorry, please pop back in and let me show you what you need to know”. That’s it. We live three minutes away and could have done that. We didn’t want to be treated like VIPs or receive discounts – we just wanted to be as informed as possible before buying an expensive item.

all that was necessary was for the guy on the phone to say, “I’m terribly sorry, please pop back in and let me show you what you need to know”

Needless to say, we will not be buying a car from that dealership again. The impact for that car dealership goes beyond a couple's dissatisfaction as they have now lost our custom forever. So, if you consider the lifetime value impact to their business over the next 20 or more years, potentially, that’s hundreds of thousands they've thrown away by not taking customer service seriously.

Also, as most people would, we will undoubtedly share that story with friends and family (and in articles!). An American Express quote I once read has stuck with me, and I doubt the figures have changed much since I saw it, if at all: on average, an individual will tell nine people about good experiences and 16 about poor ones.

The thing is, customer service is free - it costs nothing to be nice, so there really is no excuse on that point. I don’t understand how and why customers, the lifeblood of every retailer, began to fall down the day’s list of priorities. And don’t get me started on staff chatting to each other rather than acknowledging their customers. Or answering the phone in the middle of serving the person standing in front of them…a particular bugbear of mine!

There’s no chance I could walk into an Apple store and get an “I don’t know” answer from any of their team

Referring back to the car dealership and the apparent lack of product knowledge, well, if it’s your livelihood, wouldn’t you take time to increase your staff’s product knowledge? Apple certainly does. There’s no chance I could walk into an Apple store and get an “I don’t know” answer from any of their team.

Where and why has it all gone wrong?

That’s the million-dollar question. Could it be that staff hours have been cut to such an extent fewer people are now available to fulfil the necessary tasks, placing the customer at the bottom of the list of priorities instead of first? Maybe the Millennials/Gen X and Y entering retail as a career (or job) have a very different idea of customer service from Baby Boomers? I would go as far as to suggest the former do also, in general, expect to bypass the junior-level learning stages (of any job, not just retail). Unfortunately, it’s likely those early days are when invaluable customer service tips and protocols are shared by their more senior colleagues. But focusing on customer service needs to be a priority once more, and that generation should expect to learn from those who know more.

You could also argue that our predominantly online life, particularly post COVID-19, has left us all less able to communicate effectively

I’m not saying the younger generation is the sole issue here; I’m suggesting the experiences they’ve grown up with are different from those of older generations. To them, multi-focus is the norm. How often do you roll your eyes at the teenager sitting next to you who is managing to hold a conversation on a social platform, watch a movie and purchase online – at the same time. It’s what they’re used to, so how can they comprehend the importance of focusing on one thing (a customer) at a time? You could also argue that our predominantly online life, particularly post COVID-19, has left us all less able to communicate effectively.

It’s probably a combination of all of the above, and I’m sure you have many more in mind when reading this. Is it too late to turn the ship around? Of course not. We just need to take hold of the wheel and recognise: this will remain an issue and get progressively worse for offline retailers if action is not taken soon.

How can offline retailers improve their customer service delivery?

To be fair, I could barely touch the surface of this topic in one article. There are people and companies better placed than me to advise and plenty of resources to help with customer service training: from ‘on the job’ environments to online courses (yes, I see the irony in what I’m saying in the latter part of that sentence!).

I appreciate that each retailer is under immense pressure from economic, financial and HR-related areas. Also, they will all have their individual customer service level expectations and will definitely look at and learn from their competitors. However, in my opinion, offline retailers should also look towards their online counterparts.

For example, when planning the customer’s journey across a website or online shop, each possible outcome at every touchpoint must be considered. Although not all, many of those online retailers spend months making this an easy, pleasurable experience that ends in a win/win situation. The company sells its products, and customers have a positive shopping experience.

How many offline stores take the time to plot the journey their customers take from seeing their advert to standing at the till point and every touchpoint in-between? It's possibly not many, yet it’s very much part of ‘customer service’.

Conversely, online retailers can learn from offline counterparts. It can be too easy to depersonalise customer interaction: taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach because you don’t have to look them in the eye. You can’t see whether your customer is old, young, or has perhaps had a bad day and may need a more gentle, hand-holding approach.

What I do know is (and I think many will agree) the customer service delivery in the majority of stores today is not as it should be. I would love to know if you agree with my musings and, if you do, what do you think can be done to improve customer service in the offline retail sector?

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