Don’t Risk Your Brand Image by Neglecting the Customer Experience
Retailers are juggling multiple pressures as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic linger on, making it more challenging than ever to provide an exceptional customer experience.
Supply chain disruptions, product cost inflation, increased demand for omnichannel shopping, and the labor shortage have converged to make the current retail environment as difficult to navigate as any that retailers have faced in the past.
Even though consumer spending in many retail channels has accelerated in 2021, inflation across a range of goods, including gasoline, is also having a broad impact on the retail industry. Additionally, the current labor market is already supercharged with retailers raising hourly rates higher than we’ve seen in years past. Yet retailers are struggling to find the workers they need, according to the National Retail Federation’s Monthly Economic Review for September, with some workers already demanding even higher wages. Inflation and rising wages coupled with supply chain challenges has created a volatile environment where the customer experience could be forgotten altogether.
Amid these operational challenges, it’s important for retailers not to lose sight of the overall experience they're providing for their shoppers, or they risk suffering long-term damage to their brand image in the marketplace. Retailers need to closely examine their current customer experience to identify pain points for both staff and customers. The current environment calls for retailers to adopt new ways of thinking about how to ensure high levels of customer service and remain attentive throughout the customer journey. They also need to measure it as they execute a strategy to achieve their goals for delivering on their brand promise.
Following are four tips for executing on your customer experience proposition:
1. Focus on the “must-have” fundamentals.
Faced with serious staffing and supply chain challenges, retailers should zero in on the key elements of their brand promise that matter the most to the customer experience, such as store cleanliness, product availability, and attentive checkout service. Some of the “nice to have” flourishes that retailers may have offered in the past may need to be temporarily suspended to ensure that workers are delivering the “must-have” elements of the customer experience.
For example, retailers may need to consider foregoing some labor-intensive services, such as adding additional fulfillment channels, so that workers can focus on other, more pressing responsibilities.
Similarly, retailers need to ensure that they can deliver a strong customer experience through each of the channels in which they operate. If a retailer cannot provide e-commerce fulfillment at a level that supports its overall brand promise, it should either look for ways to improve service levels or eliminate the offering. Keep in mind that adding more fulfillment channels creates more touchpoints, which means more potential areas that require a focus on customer service.
2. Communicate and engage with customers.
Retailers can help manage customer expectations and experiences with careful communications, using digital and physical signage as well as verbal communications.
Customers might not realize the pressures that retailers are under in terms of staffing, supply chain shortfalls, and pricing. Retailers should have a strategy for explaining how these might impact the customer experience, but keep it positive if possible.
For example, rather than simply asking for customers’ patience if the retailer is operating short-handed, consider posting signage that asks customers to show their appreciation for the workers who are there. Similarly, let customers know that price increases are unavoidable because of the rising cost of goods that are out of the retailer’s control.
3. Empathize with workers.
Workers may be feeling significant stress from the pandemic, both on the job and at home, and retailers shouldn't underestimate the need to empathize with their staff.
Employees may be stretched thin and are likely dealing with unfamiliar responsibilities and procedures at work, for example, while at the same time they may be coping with stresses outside of work, such as caring for other family members.
It’s important for retail operators and managers in this situation to check in with their workers every day to understand how they're feeling, both physically and mentally, so that they can do their part in delivering on your brand promise. Retailers also need to be mindful of how much they're asking their employees to work when they're operating short-staffed.
4. Look for automated solutions.
The pandemic accelerated the industry’s adoption of automation for some processes, but retailers should carefully consider the impact that technology could have on the customer experience.
Some customers are comfortable with a high level of automation, including self-checkout and app-based scanning technologies, while others will likely prefer the option of in-person interaction with staff. Customers often seek a level of social activity with cashiers and other store associates.
Behind-the-scenes technologies can often help achieve efficiencies without detracting from a retailer’s brand promise. Retailers should look closely at automated solutions that can streamline some back-of-house functions without detracting from customer service.
In summary, retailers might have to compromise in some areas of their operations in order to excel at delivering their brand promise, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. Failure to provide a satisfying guest experience could result in long-term damage to a retailer’s brand reputation.
Regardless of the current environment, the brand promise can’t change. Retailers still need to focus on providing the best possible customer journey by identifying pain points in the customer experience, measuring performance against their goals, and executing consistently.
Brands must also remember that communication with customers is key, and should remain positive, focusing on the elements that are under the retailer’s control. They also need to empathize with and support workers, and at the same time look for technologies that ultimately allow them to focus on delivering the brand promise to every customer.
Laura Livers is executive vice president at SeeLevel HX, a mystery shopping company and market research services provider that can boost the level of customer experience your business provides.
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Laura Livers is executive vice president at SeeLevel HX. She previously served as the executive vice president, U.S. Qualitative Solutions for Schlesinger Group following the acquisition of Focus Pointe Global, where she had served as CEO. Prior to joining Focus Pointe Global in 2009, Laura served as president of mystery shopping firm Shop'n Chek Worldwide, now MarketForce.