Customer Service in the Age of Online Retail

I was listening in to this morning’s Breakfast Show on 891 ABC Adelaide, and co-host Matthew Abraham was telling guest Peter Switzer about a recent experience he had at a bricks-and-mortar retailer.

Matthew was looking to buy coffee pods but the retailer was out of stock of the popular brand. The sales assistant said that had been the case for a couple of weeks. They didn’t attempt to solve Matthew’s problem. They just offered excuses.

With a little research, Matthew discovered that the pods supplier would be out of stock for weeks to come and then found an Australian online shop that could supply the pods within days, and at a slightly lower price.

Someone from the online store also responded quickly to an enquiry he made.

He got better service from the online store, so can you guess where Matthew will be buying his pods from in the future?

As Peter Switzer pointed out, this highlights that the modern consumer is clever enough to fend for themselves and the Internet lets them bypass the “old economy” retailer.

At Baker Marketing we agree with Peter that this means customer service is “critically important”.

Isn’t it surprising and interesting that an online store can be more helpful than a real person, and that while consumers don’t hesitate to do research online, retailers don’t seem to empower or encourage their staff to do the same?

This shows that many high street retailers are still “in denial” about the threat online shopping poses to them and they underestimate the power that consumers wield thanks to effectiveness of online search and the convenience of mobile technology.

They seem to have a blind spot when it come to technology and see their stores as an Internet-free zone. The trouble is that consumers don’t think that way any more…

They carry the Internet in their pocket and they’re not afraid to use it!

My key takeouts for traditional retailers:

  • Exemplary face-to-face customer service can (and should) trump an online transaction
  • Carrying stock instore is paramount as consumers still love to see products and buy them on-the-spot
  • Train your retail staff to respond to shoppers’ enquiries and bend over backwards to help
  • Enable staff to use online resources solve problems for consumers, and
  • Allocate time and money to training to deliver the service consumers expect.

Even if a staff member helping a consumer leads them to purchase elsewhere, the positive experience will mean they are more likely to return to your store.

For online retailers there are a few learnings too:

  • Finding a niche where you can compete is a key to success online
  • Make sure that your mechanisms for dealing with customer enquiries and solving problems are excellent
  • Use video and great images to simulate what consumers experience in a physical store, and
  • Ensure you have the distribution systems in place to deliver products as quickly as possible.

Photo by Peter Dutton on Flickr (CC by 2.0).