By Elaine Kleinschmidt
Our consumer culture isn’t very analog anymore. It has been disrupted by an array of new digital technologies. What with Amazon, AI-aided buying on Alexa, same-hour delivery, dying malls, cashier-less stores, instant product reviews, and you name it, each day some new tech advance appears to be… coming for your brand.
Shepherding a brand while playing defense against whatever has come to destroy your company next, means even the most focused succumb to the notion something fundamental has shifted for good. If a single ethos defines the retail industry, it is dread. Every consultant’s PowerPoint deck includes some shocking slide about retail’s looming death spiral to obsolescence. But if you’re charged with navigating a brand into this shaky future, it’s easy to forget an immutable truth: Shoppers want and always will want exceptional customer service.
Recently, at WD Partners we undertook an extensive deep-dive into consumer expectations. We wanted to understand why shoppers define a brand as good or bad. What emerged definitively in our results is the value shoppers place on customer service. The best brands were primarily associated with compelling customer service. We asked 3015 consumers a simple question completely unaided: What is your favorite brand and why? The results were overwhelming: 2,955 out of 3,015 people mentioned great customer service. And do you know the brand that received the most unaided mentions as being “the best” – Amazon. In fact, EVERY SINGLE PERSON that listed Amazon as their favorite brand cited customer service as the reason why using words like sublime, iron clad, hassle free, awesome & amazing.
This is a foundational expectation, online or off. Great customer service always matters, always offers a competitive advantage, and will also always be the hardest thing to pull off. Period. Full stop.
Despite this upheaval, shoppers haven’t changed. Shoppers are still just people. Robots might be packing and shipping their favorite products, but that doesn’t change human nature. People still want to feel good. They want to feel welcome. They want to be respected. They want to touch and trial product. And, most importantly, they want places to go.
When they do go somewhere, they want exceptional customer service, wherever and however they might choose to shop. And here’s another neglected truth: People are always going to want to shop, at least some of the time, inside a real physical environment. What consumers want from a store experience will always be recognizable. They want well-trained and informed people to talk to and welcome them into and out of a retail space, and yes, they will still want this, even when what constitutes a store becomes unrecognizable.
And that’s the hard part, transitioning away from an analog definition of what customer service means. What does and doesn’t constitute great customer service has morphed in both detail and form. The scope and scale have shifted. There are some daunting expectations. Shoppers have been primed by Amazon Prime, a cornball-y if apt pun. Even five years ago, what has since become a baseline expectation would have sounded like a ridiculous and Herculean demand: She likes that pair of sheepskin-lined boots but you don’t have her size in stock. Better find a way to get them on her doorstep in 24 hours or less.
Yet customer service once encompassed a rather simple directive: Just be nice to people. This principle still applies. But customers now judge a physical store experience through the lens of all e-commerce experiences. And that’s why the bar keeps getting higher.
In-store shoppers now judge you through the lens of e-commerce experiences. In the chart below, we outline the shifting meanings of customer service as the digital lens alters consumer expectations.
(store is in charge)
- Drive to mall, park, walk half a mile, shop from store to store
- Scroll through 1,000 options
- Buy online, wait in service line inside store to get your order
- We might have that in stock for you
- Try on several, buy and take home
- Robot answers your call
- Keep your receipts
- In store associate is amazing!
(shopper is in charge)
- I’m not moving off this couch, Alexa, find me what I need
- Alexa, which is best for me?
- Hey Target, I’m driving up, put my order in my trunk
- I get anything I want, anytime I want it
- I buy 3 online, try on at home, ship 2 back
- Hello, Meredith, here’s my problem
- You have my data, look up my purchase
- In store associate is amazing!
Yes, Amazon is completely redefining the meaning of service. You order stuff within an hour, and it shows up on your doorstep. With Amazon, next-day delivery morphed into same-day delivery and in some markets, less than an hour. Yet customer service goes beyond the transactional innovation Amazon keeps delivering. Focusing a brand’s value proposition on how to meet very specific consumer wants and needs still matters. Store brands must execute well inside the store and never stop investing in people.
The physical world is always messy. Compared to a dot.com site, a real store has more variables because there are real people there. And people are infinitely variable. That makes it harder to execute well on the customer service front inside the store than on a dot.com platform. The possibilities of failure and success are supercharged. The sustainable, viable, and profitable brands keep customer service front and center: Starbucks, Apple, Whole Foods, Nordstrom.
In short, customer service isn’t the only thing, it’s just the No. 1 thing. After all, even within the labor-disrupting Amazon Go store, where there are no cashiers, there are still six employees wandering the floor in case a customer can’t find the Band-Aids or wants to ask how a new flavor of La Croix tastes. In the end, the possibilities of technology are both disruptive and distracting. But store brands with a loyal customer base, who meet expectations with exceptional customer service first, can hedge against Amazon’s price-driven and transactional approach.
Don’t get off track. Executing well inside the store always matters. If you want to maintain margins, and brand distinction, do not neglect customer service. Win where you can win. Innovate where you can maintain a unique experience Amazon cannot offer. But no matter what changes, always, always remember to just be nice to people.