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?

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All is not equal when it comes to workforce management for retail

shopping bagsIn more than 25 years in the workforce management business and having worked with many retailers over the years, I have to say all is not equal when it comes to retail workforce management solutions. I have seen many projects fail over that time and they usually fail for one of two reasons; poor change management or poor choice of technology.

Today I will focus on selecting the right technology and cover change management another day.

Unfortunately, with the tools available today the “barrier to entry” to create an attractive-looking application is pretty low, and means “buyer beware!” Any retailer selecting and deploying an effective workforce management solution must do their due diligence well. It is far too common to be drawn in by the claim that all you need is something simple. “Something simple” often translates to “beauty only being skin deep”

“If it looks too good to be true it probably is” should be the byword when selecting workforce management technology. Whilst of course any such technology should be intuitive and easy to use at the sharp end, i.e. in the stores. It must have the depth and substance behind it to allow for the sophisticated forecasting, labour standards and scheduling algorithms required to be successful in our new Omni-channel world. For instance if all the solution does is forecast and schedule to a simple standard such as labour cost as a percentage of sale, then guess what, that’s exactly what it will do, and continue to do, even as underlying sales fall.

Today’s rapidly changing retail world requires sophisticated forecasting engines capable of accurately forecasting multiple drivers for labour; footfall by store area, sales by article group, queue length, deliveries and more. The application should then be capable of using those drivers and associated granular labour standards and the variety of store operating models to create the ideal staffing plan. Taking that ideal plan through to delivering practical schedules accommodating employee flexibility, availability, preferences, skills, hours worked, legislation, collective bargaining agreements and a host of other attributes is key to quality operational delivery.

The solution must then ensure managers and associates execute against that ideal schedule, guiding store managers so they can deal efficiently with the realities of life, such as sickness, lateness and unexpected events like emergency road works right there on the shop floor in real-time. After all what is the point of the best schedule in the world unless it plays through to reality?

Finally, the solution needs to aggregate all that data, analyse it and suggest areas for improvement, identifying best practice whilst comparing channels against best in class operations.

Workforce management done well has one of the fastest returns on investment of any technology deployment. It creates genuine competitive advantage for retailers; increasing basket size, improving conversion, customer service, product availability, employee engagement, sales and revenue.

All is most definitely not equal when it comes to workforce management, remember “beauty is often only skin deep”.