What does a great customer experience feel like? I have thought about this for a long time, both professionally as a consultant to several retail startups, and as an individual consumer, surveying the landscape from Target to Tiffany’s. And it’s been fascinating—and disheartening at times—to observe the retail landscape changing. So beyond online vs. offline, what is at the core of a successful merchant vs. one that is struggling? I am convinced it is largely driven by a great customer experience (or lack of one).
For retailers that deal primarily in commodities (i.e. products which are largely interchangeable across brands, where price is the most important deciding factor) like Amazon, a great customer experience is one that is fast, cheap, and seamless. It’s no wonder that mid-market grocery and home retailers are beginning to struggle under the weight that is Amazon’s logistics and pricing mastery.
On the other hand, in cases where price is only one factor, but not the most important one, then fast, cheap, and seamless are not always the way to achieve a great customer experience. In situations where a purchase decision is influenced by design, personal taste and style, sentiment, or otherwise motivated more by desire than by necessity, the makeup of a great customer experience might be: rapport or relationship between buyer and seller, trust, honesty, empathy, and a genuine desire to please. In other words, the added value of interacting with or choosing a particular retailer or salesperson that go beyond the intrinsic qualities of the product or service being purchased. These qualities are what makes the purchase process better, more appealing, more satisfying, and more likely to be repeated.
Part of what spurred this post and the galvanization of my own thoughts was this article on Medium by Aytekin Tank, entitled: “Customer service is your company’s most powerful marketing weapon — here’s how to sharpen it.” He stresses that customer service is so crucial to marketing because engendering loyalty and retention through long term relationships, excellent post-sale service, and general attentiveness to existing customers is far cheaper than constantly acquiring new customers and establishing new relationships.
I couldn’t agree more. While so much of the marketing function is about finding new customers, and that is important to an extent, not enough emphasis is placed on doing customer experience really well—engaging customers before, during, and after sale. This applies to selling software and handling customers virtually as much as it does selling a product and managing an omni-channel luxury retail business.
What I’ve learned over the years is that retail is changing for three key reasons:
Real estate is becoming a liability as in-store traffic and sales dwindle, so large spaces are costing more than they produce. Most consumers are too busy recreating on the weekend to spend their precious Saturdays and Sundays shopping. It’s just not the primary pastime anymore. And, that’s a problem for retailers like Barneys, which recently announced bankruptcy proceedings and the closure of the majority of its stores.
When the time does come for an in-store purchase, sales associates are super discouraged. After all, their pay structure is antiquated and based on sales commissions, so they are even more desperate to drive in-store traffic, push for sales once you’re in the store (a red flag for most modern consumers), and generally be more competitive with each other over the smaller number of in-store shoppers.
There’s also a societal move toward quality (of design, construction, materials, function) over quantity, sustainability of apparel, and a broader interest in minimalism. This means less frequent shopping, more focused shopping searches, and an interest in paying more for something special or useful rather than finding the lowest possible price at all times and accumulating a bunch of junk.
However, offline retail isn’t going away. Shoppers still want the in-store and physical experience, just without the pressure to buy or experience of wandering a sad space full of markdowns, disarray, and ambivalence (or desperation). Offline retail should be about a genuine connection, not through a screen or a robot, but as an embodiment of the brand with a real person who is excited to discuss it with you. It’s why the new crop of savvy retailers (which are not wholesalers but selling their own brand of products) are doing both online stores and offline “showrooms,” where they make product available to try and test and touch and feel (e.g. Warby Parker, Away). Transactions in these spaces are secondary to the brand experience.
With all of this said, I predict a shift back toward offline customer experiences that are truly next-level, because they are personal, tailored, and attentive in a way that even the best artificial intelligence can’t replicate.
In the case of Barneys, it isn’t simply that people are buying fewer expensive things, it’s that they’re going where they get a great customer experience, like at smaller more intimate boutiques. Or, they’re buying more special, novel items along their travels around the world—items with a backstory. Or they’re choosing to spend at a high-end brand’s own flagship store for the fully-immersive experience. And if it comes down to getting a deal, they’re finding the same things elsewhere online, for cheaper, like at Italist, a site that works directly with independent boutiques in Italy, so it can offer duty-free prices that are up to 30% lower than US retail prices.
I don’t think Barneys’ value is completely lost. It’s amazing at discovering new brands and curating a wholly unique point of view that none of its peers can really match. But, in trying to be too many things to too many different consumer groups, it competes with a much wider range of options and has lost a lot of its focus.
For me, a great customer experience, through a great sales associate (brand ambassador, etc.), is empathetic, honest, and responsive. They have high emotional intelligence, can adapt, and are given wide enterprise by upper management to engage with clients/shoppers/customers however they deem best. This could be via exchanging phone numbers so they can establish a text link, following each other on social media, or otherwise establishing an ongoing channel to communicate and a relationship that is more than purely transactional.
As Mr. Tank references in his Medium post, a great customer experience is also about taking responsibility, admitting mistakes, apologizing, and making the situation right. In a way, embracing the same kind of vulnerability and humility in business as one ought to do in life as an individual.
One challenge I encountered while working for an e-commerce startup that frequently sent orders across the U.S. and the world were issues with shipping logistics—we didn’t charge them enough, we underestimated shipping weight, they didn’t pay for priority shipping but the package is over 1lb and thus requires USPS priority service, something didn’t arrive, an order was incorrect or incomplete. The list was endless, but my attitude was always: it’s better to eat the cost of correcting whatever mistakes we made, and go above and beyond the customer’s expectation, rather than nickel-and-diming them or being overly rigid in our policies out of concern for our margins.
Of course it takes two different people in a business to have that attitude and watch over the bottom line, but it instilled a sense of goodwill and genuine trust in the vast majority of our customers who could have easily chosen other sources for their purchases. When we did make a mistake or error, they were forgiving, understanding, and appreciative to get a response, quickly, from a real person.
When it came to blending the online and offline experiences, we were attentive as a group of employees and managers to knowing who had been in our retail space before, who had engaged with us online or been tagging us in social postings, what they’d recently purchased, and were always sure to engage them in relevant conversations referencing those details. “How is your new fountain pen working out? Did you know it works with this different brand of ink cartridges? We’re having a fountain pen event here in a few weeks, you should join us and learn more about how to care for and collect fountain pens!” People loved this. I mean, they were so gushy and geeky and touched…because we paid attention.
On the other end of the spectrum, in a different setting with much higher price points, I’ve encountered a great customer experience where I am the customer. While on a trip to Las Vegas, I made friends with a sales associate at the Bottega Veneta store in the Bellagio resort. She recognized that I knew my stuff, and engaged me in a genuine, organic conversation about the brand’s new creative director. When I was ready to leave (and had no intent to buy), I took her card with me and thanked her.
Months later, we still communicate via text periodically. So far I have not spent a dime with her, but she indulges me in a reasonable amount of chit chat about the brand, about new products, and sends pictures once in a while. She reads the blog posts I send to her. I’m not deluded into thinking we are besties, but we have a nice, appropriately close connection. And she knows that I have the potential to become a great client, given the funds. But people like her are rare, because most of her peers would see me as a waste of time. I’m certain she has bigger clients to chase, and that is perfectly reasonable. But she’s also planting seeds, and I am more likely to get in touch with her than go to the local store to buy something, if and when the time comes that I want to drop four figures.
Of course, the issue with a great customer experience then becomes scale. How does one scale that practice, those policies, or those attitudes into a larger business, especially when everything gets boiled back down to ROI? I’m convinced that it’s possible, but it does require change.
First, offline retail (and those working in-store) should really be viewed as a function of marketing and brand management. They should be compensated in relation to the success of the whole business rather than on individual selling, and work together as a team to engage and delight clients locally and beyond.
And, the “success” of a great customer experience should be measured over the long term with regard to relationships built and cultivated, rather than quarter-to-quarter revenues, earnings, etc. This myopic metric is used frequently due to the close relationship between many retailers and the publicly-traded markets, which run on a quarter-to-quarter mindset.
Brands that aim to develop such loyalty and retention should focus on engaging their existing customers, providing world-class support and post-sale interactions, and put people at the front lines of their brand experience. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to look at a screen when I walk into a retail store. I understand the necessity to marry online and offline data points, but the reason I want to come into a store is to have a conversation, not look at a computer like I can at home.
A great customer experience is personal, meeting the consumer where they are, first listening before speaking. It’s slow. And it’s a long game. It’s not a chatbot or targeted social media ads. Those will always be an element of marketing because they do have an efficiency for “good enough” customer service and awareness-building. But these tactics are not enough to establish an ongoing dialogue, not even close. Only when those technologies are leveraged to empower the employees at the front lines engaging with customers to give them the best experience possible will consumer-facing companies differentiate and thrive.
At our core, we want to be heard, understood, appreciated, and delighted. A great customer experience can get everything else wrong as long as it gets those things right.
Thanks to Tierney Elison and Catherine McCarthy for edits to this post.