It would be difficult not to notice the increasing pressure on high street retailers, even the household names, to compete against online brands by offering the highest standard of customer experience. This pressure comes at a time when we are seeing huge growth in companies using customer data to personalise shopping experiences, as well as smart in-store engagement technology such as magic mirrors that match you with your perfect lipstick, or the shirt that goes best with those trousers you are trying on.
For bricks and mortar retailers competing both online and on the high street, the need for a true omnichannel customer engagement approach has never been clearer. Retailers both on and offline can make momentous gains by adopting industry leading omnichannel best practice, and ‘connecting the dots’ between the many customer data-points and the consumer’s overall experience of the brand.
Competing on price or convenience is dead. With customer experience now the key differentiator in the retail sector, and the wider subscription economy demanding that companies maintain long, attentive relationships with their customers, how can technology save our high street?
Merging online and offline
For a long time there has been a perception that the retail market comprised of two separately operating businesses, an online business and an in person business. But, the reality is that the same customers exist in both scenarios, and often simultaneously. Whether the customer is on their device at home or walking around a physical retail space with a device to compare deals in store with competitors, there is an urgent need to be able to communicate effectively across all channels that the customer chooses, and whenever they choose to use them.
Retailers should recognise the fact that their customers are likely interacting with their brand both digitally and physically, often at the same time. The primary concern should be then, that these customers want the same connected experience, both online and offline, whenever, wherever. Matching the expectations of this new-age consumer insists that retailers deploy an omnichannel experience.
There is a lot to be said for the power of online shopping, and its ability to collect, store and process data points on individuals. That advantage is hard to ignore, as it allows for complete personalisation of their shopping experience, and opens up more real-time direct and opportunistic communications with the customer. But, with the rise of technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), we are just approaching from a future where physical stores can collect, store and process valuable data as customers enter, shop and leave their stores. Gone are the days when retailers were limited to counting footfall; we all leave digital footprints, and by analysing our movements it is possible to start honing in, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, what relevant and valuable communications will resonate with each individual as they move through the physical world.
In fact, the possibility to develop deeper intelligence on the physical customer journey could be an even richer resource in store than that garnered by clicks on a website. So, will the pinnacle of the retail experience be born when these two worlds collide? Perhaps. But only with the right orchestration and only for those retailers that have already laid the foundations of best-practice omnichannel communications with their consumers.
Implementing true omnichannel
Omnichannel is a term that some businesses use to describe communications that happen across various channels but often these are managed in siloed compartments. Having multiple channels available in a business’ customer service model is great, but excellence only comes when performance is consistent across all of them. In an ideal world, there should be no weak links that threaten to degrade the service customers receive – this is what makes a customer service experience omnichannel, rather than multichannel.
Utilising a cloud contact centre that offers the level of integration needed for a true omnichannel experience could be the make or break for retailers in the coming years. Many retailers will have different systems controlling different departments, the truly omnichannel contact centre can bring together different information systems and make them appear fully joined up, both internally and externally. For example, the system that logs stock in the warehouse can speak to the system that registers someone in store unable to find their size in the item they are looking at, and with this seamless information sharing, the retailer can automatically and instantly communicate to the customer a personalised offer to order that item in their size with free next day delivery. This level of omnichannel operations not only makes internal communications and processes easier and more automated, but it benefits the customer and, ultimately, strengthens their relationship with the brand.
The future of retail engagement
So, how does the contact centre, as we know it today, become a truly omnichannel engagement hub that supports the bright future of our converged online/offline retail experience? The answer is that this is already available. In fact, as an industry, the contact centre’s implementation of the latest technology such as AI and machine learning is progressing at record speed, and making a huge impact to customer experience along the way.
Customers increasingly value and expect real-time responses to support enquiries – according to research from Hubspot, 90% of consumers rate an immediate response to a customer support issue as ‘important’ or ‘very important’. This means that agents who don’t have to spend time searching for answers to customer enquiries are much better placed to meet today’s service expectations. To deliver on this requirement, it’s likely that the traditional Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems most retailers use will be replaced by much more sophisticated and effective Natural Language Processing (NLP) systems. Any organisation that sells itself on the basis of customer service excellence needs to meet the immediate expectations of its customers.
The sophistication of NLP has developed enormously in recent years, and research suggests that 65% of 25-49 year olds speak to their voice-enabled devices at least once per day. Instead of a value-add, offering effective NLP as part of an omnichannel strategy is becoming a must have.
In practical terms, by automating the handling of simple customer interactions, live agents can deal with more complex or urgent inquiries. Empowering customers by routing them to an AI service accelerates their call resolution, reduces frustration and improves satisfaction. However, it is essential that AI systems can process this data effectively and direct customers and agents towards accurate information. This requires a base platform with the capability of uniting all relevant systems, such as internally in the warehouses and out on the shop floor, so that the AI can draw from multiple databases to formulate a response.
The demand for ‘as-a-service’ omnichannel offerings across all sectors is clear. However, any retailer that wants to succeed in this new converged online/offline, subscription economy needs a comprehensive understanding of how to nurture happy, long-term customer relationships across all existing and future channels of engagement. Customer experience is now the key differentiator in any business, but most especially in retail. Not only do customers expect an attentive and efficient long-term relationship, but one that can take place seamlessly across every channel, for the brands both on and offline, mastering this is absolutely essential to achieve long term success.
Credit: Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO at Content Guru
Holly brings a wealth of experience in both print and digital publishing. As Modern Retail’s Content Editor, Holly is passionate about helping independent retailers to thrive in today’s ever-changing market.