Customer Service – have we gone too far?

My colleague Andrew Busby recently attended a retail event that included some quite controversial topics of conversation around customer service. We all shop so it is quite interesting to see how retailers’ views are changing in the wake of omni-channel pressure.

“Trade abuse for availability”

I enjoyed a great evening earlier this week talking retail with some of the biggest and most well known names on the High Street. It was a lively and sometimes slightly controversial debate sprinkled with some hilarious exchanges as befits such an occasion. But one assertion gradually emerged from the discussions: customer service – have retailers gone too far in their offer for the convenience of the consumer?

The general acceptance around the table was that we are currently in an arms race with every brand on the High Street trying to steal a march on their rivals by differentiation through world class convenient customer service.

Price, product & availability have now got to be taken as assumed. However, customer experience, service delivery, online experience, in-store experience – all are at the forefront of retailers’ minds as they try to understand how to generate increased footfall, better conversion rates and therefore sales.

The consumer these days is so fickle, so savvy, so mobile and light of foot that traditional loyalty is a thing of the past. Whereas once before brand loyalty, especially to supermarkets, was a strong deciding factor in buying behaviour, today that doesn’t exist to nearly the same degree. What matters most is the experience. But this doesn’t have to be the same for every touch point. It varies according to the buying need whether it be luxury, essential or just browsing. Someone on a short lunch break wanting to grab a sandwich for lunch is typically going to be in a hurry and not interested in a personalised engagement at the checkout. They might be far happier to use the SSC and be out of the store as quickly as possible. On another occasion and perhaps for particular demographics, their trip to the supermarket is as much a social interaction as a necessity to buy the groceries, in which case an entirely different experience needs to be delivered.

But one thing shone through in all the debate: pretty much all the retailers are grappling with the same challenge. Different approaches to try to crack it but all in a similar place and all wondering whether, in trying to deliver a better offering to the customer, the arms race is in danger of causing irreparable damage? Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is click and collect and the impact this has on virtually all aspects of the retail operation: supply chain, stock availability, replenishment, store operations, returns, fulfilment – the list goes on. And in striving to offer better and better offerings to their customers will we see even more casualties on the High Street?  After all, all this customer service and convenience comes at a cost which isn’t necessarily passed onto the consumer. Think grocery home delivery; anyone making any money from that operation: No, didn’t think so.

Perhaps the time is rapidly approaching when, as the supermarkets said in the wake of the meat scandal, if you want cheap food don’t be surprised if it sometimes goes wrong (or words to that effect) so, the same maybe about to happen with online. If you want a ‘premium’ service sure, but you’re going to have to pay for it.

Or put it another way, which incidentally brought the house down the other evening: trade a little abuse for availability! We can’t have it both ways. Or can we?

Follow Andrew’s blog ‘Retail Storm’ here: http://andrewbusbyretailstorm.tumblr.com/

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