High-quality assistance can help retailers build long-term relationships with consumers.

Customer service is at the foundation of nearly every successful shopping experience. Due to the often personal nature of customer service, it can be an integral factor in retail selection, customer loyalty and, ultimately, lifetime value. This column examines how retailers that embrace a customer-first mentality, embody a culture of caring and exploit technology can thrive under the highly competitive retail climate.

0219_Views_LaurenFreedman

Lauren Freedman is Internet Retailer’s senior consumer insights analyst

Looking across the spectrum of customer service, most aspects can be grouped into four categories, half of which are on the customer’s side of the equation (the customer and speed), and half are from the retailer’s perspective (the culture of caring and technology). I’ve laid out the premise for each of four areas of focus, along with a narrative that covers the topic in detail.

#1: The customer

The premise: Today’s shopper has heightened expectations for the user experience and the supporting customer service she receives as she shops, buys and seeks support from the retail community.
One only needs to start with the findings from a July 2018 Internet Retailer/Toluna consumer survey. When asked why they buy from Amazon, 79% of consumers cited the quality of the retail giant’s customer service. And if that matters at Amazon, it matters for every retailer.

Overall satisfaction with customer service is strong as shoppers doled out mostly good or excellent marks, according to the survey. Six in 10 shoppers who engaged with customer service agents graded their experiences at least good, so retailers are well equipped to capitalize on these positive sentiments. From a holiday perspective, almost one in five shoppers surveyed reported encountering no issues at all, which is certainly a positive sign.

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However, shoppers don’t care about channels, which puts the onus on retailers to deliver a consistent point of view. That forces retailers to meet the standards set by today’s “on-the-go” shoppers.

‘Yes’ is the right answer

Consumers have questions that they need answered. They want them addressed quickly and handled adeptly on an individual basis, rather than as a one-size-fits-all model.

The customer clearly wants to have it his way, utilizing both self-service and human-assisted options. Living in an “always-on” world forces retailers to explore how to make information available cost-effectively while best serving the needs of the customer.
Shoppers dislike waiting and customer service agent incompetency when they seek customer service. More than half, 53%, of online shoppers cite long hold times as problematic in customer service experiences with online retailers, followed by 38% of online shoppers who report incompetent customer service reps as a pet peeve.

It follows that it is because of these experiences that technology is playing an increasingly important role in taking care of the customer. It is the combination of choice and flexibility to move between self-service and human options that can best accommodate the needs of individuals while still meeting retailers’ profitability goals.

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#2: Speed

The premise: Shoppers often shop online to save them precious time. They have come to expect efficiency in every aspect of the experience starting with access to information and culminating in swift delivery.

Every retailer should have as one of its goals to deliver flawless customer service, which includes honoring delivery promises. Though limited in nature, roughly 15% of consumers experienced a late delivery or lack of communication regarding orders. Regardless of these strong satisfaction numbers, it is more important than ever that retailers are proactive in their communications to avoid aggravating their customers.

As retailers increasingly deliver quickly, consumers have grown comfortable shopping online when they need orders fast, which is reflected in the choices made at least once in a while:
• One in three shoppers placed orders for same-day delivery from stores and websites.
• 43% paid for expedited shipping.
• 58% didn’t place an order when delivery information wasn’t available or the time to receive was too long.

#3: The culture of caring

The premise: While some retailers are built on a low-cost self-service model, others have chosen to take the high road and have used service as a differentiator. Under these circumstances, it’s a combination of the people, the training and the value system.

Retailers make choices about the way they wish to interact with their customers. For example, I’ve experienced countless instances in which a retailer made an exception to its policies by accepting returns outside of the policy window, taking back damaged products or even allowing me to use an expired coupon. These choices that retailers make may force a hit to the bottom line but, at the same time, the positive impression that is made one shopper at a time is invaluable. Amazon has leveraged this approach over the years, making it seem like a “no-questions-asked” model when shoppers encounter issues. This model is undoubtedly one of the reasons it ranks so high in customer satisfaction each year. Keeping it simple has important benefits for both retailers and consumers alike, making retailers more inclined to do the right thing by shoppers.

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#4: The technology

The premise: Retailers will test and embrace technology to better serve their customers within the context of their business model and customer base.

One of the important technologies in customer service is AI, or artificial intelligence, where one quarter of customer service interactions will involve either a virtual assistant or chatbots by 2020, according to Gartner. That would be a huge jump from only 2% in 2017. Applications are seen in everything from standardized FAQs, profiling of products and personal shopper needs, to warranties and returns processes.

AI is not the be-all and end-all for customer service, but it can minimize frustration and save time under the right circumstances. Automation is responsive and reliable and can be available 24/7. One might even think of it as a customer service optimizer, through such tools as automated FAQs, since it adeptly handles simple and mundane tasks and facilitates the escalation of the more complex.

A recent study from Eptica found that 64% of customers do not mind interacting with automated chatbots, and more than 50% are willing to accept the use of intelligent voice assistants in seeking the answers to their queries.

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Cost savings may come into vogue as the economics fluctuate and saving money becomes essential for retail survival. On the positive front, technology can be faster and lead to increased satisfaction. It can simultaneously result in lower labor costs and deliver the consistency shoppers covet in their relationships with retailers. Of course, as this technology evolves, we have to be candid in saying nothing is perfect, frustration can arise among customers and doing it right can take time and is often expensive. Retailers will learn as they adopt technologies to best represent their brands and improve the experiences of their customers.

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