Roundtable: The future of digital customer experience

Retailers and brands joined Retail Gazette and iAdvize for breakfast to discuss the challenges around delivering a suitable digital customer experience.

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How do we better tell our brand story online? How can we prove the business case for customer experience to the c-suite? And how can we switch our online customer conversations from face-saving, customer complaint reactions, to positive interactions?

These represent a sample of the key retail challenges debated in detail at a breakfast roundtable in Manchester on the future of digital customer experience. The event was hosted by Retail Gazette and conversational marketing platform iAdvize, a business offering online shoppers the option to chat in real time to independent experts, providing authentic advice about products and services.

In a morning of wide-ranging discussions involving multichannel retailers, pure-plays and brands, encompassing businesses old and new, the common theme centred on adopting the right tactics and suitable technology investments to ensure the customer is placed at the heart of everything they do.

Representatives from AO.com, Co-op Digital, Co-op Food, Forever Unique, JD Sports, Julian Charles/Rectella, New Balance, and ISawItFirst.com attended the event, which ultimately shone a light on the shift in thinking required for today’s retailers to succeed.

 

Expertise to the fore

With Sainsbury’s recent move to take on Boots and Superdrug by introducing new beauty ranges and services in its stores, and importantly by providing the sector experts to help customers make the right purchasing decisions, service-led retail is on trend.

The supermarket chain is not the only company looking to build out such a strategy, with the likes of Marks and Spencer Simply Food now looking to provide cooking and ingredient inspiration via its social media channels, and The Entertainer toy store chain introducing product ambassadors via it’s Entertainer Squad proposition on YouTube.

Retailers from all sectors appear to be finding ways to elevate themselves from simply being places from which customers can buy goods, to destinations and organisations that engage with their communities and offer added value in multiple areas.

This trend rang true with roundtable attendees, with several of them talking up the impact in-store events, product demonstrations and expert workshops translate positively into sales and traffic across all customer channels.

A crucial element to success in this space, though, is authenticity, with one roundtabler warning “customers are wise to services that aren’t genuine”.

Key to ensuring these moves offer balance sheet benefits, though, is getting staff to become advocates for the retailers they work for. Delegates agreed if retailers can convince those selling the goods to strongly buy into the brand they represent and develop detailed product and brand expertise in the process, then there is a greater chance to engender customer engagement in-store and online.

 

A new set of retail KPIs

However, this shift in thinking among retailers, which is resulting in them evolving from companies that sell stuff to organisations that customers want to associate with, will almost certainly require new metrics to measure success.

Big-name UK retailers are now focusing on measuring customer satisfaction and other consumer-centric metrics as a benchmark of good performance, and shifting away from a hard and fast obsession with the bottom line.

Amazon is arguably partly to blame for that, as it has grown market share and attracted customers in their millions over the last decade without – until recently – making a profit. This model of customer service at all cost has influenced consumers in such a way that shopper expectation levels among the wider retail industry are now sky high.

Some of the biggest businesses in the sector are moving away from store sales-based targets towards more holistic customer engagement measurements. Around the table, attendees discussed this seismic shift, with one contributor saying “experience and satisfaction are the new focus”.

“Let’s focus on the customer, and the rest of the good stuff will follow,” was another remark met with wide agreement from people in the room.

Retailers by their very nature exist to make money, of course, but the route to doing so – and, critically, the route to ensuring customers will continue to want to spend money with a specific business – has changed dramatically in recent times.

“Customer lifetime value” now appears to be a measure very much at the forefront of retailers’ minds, according to the roundtable discussions. But significant barriers internally still exist to convince those holding the purse-strings that “return on investment should be a longer-term goal”, it was noted.

 

Technology and telling stories

Delegates spoke of the importance of technology in helping engage customers online, with the advantages of chatbots, live chat, e-receipts, YouTube video demonstrations, and general social media management strategy debated in detail.

Those at the roundtable were largely in agreement that “Instagram-friendly experiences” need to be considered as part of a 21st-century retail strategy, in order to engage customers primarily of a younger demographic.

To progress these efforts, brands and retailers are trying to “tell stories” about their products in new ways. And for this to happen, companies operating in this fast-moving sector are keen to use technology to showcase their expertise and engage customers – and that’s where social media “community teams”, “customer forums” and user video reviews are starting to have a constructive impact, according to the discussions.

But also, in the case of chatbots for examples, retailers are looking to use more automated processes to answer “FAQs that customers can never be bothered to locate” or more volume-based queries.

Fran Langham, head of marketing in the UK for iAdvize, and one of the company’s representatives at the roundtable, said: “Today’s retailers and brands are in a battle to drive customer engagement in a world where customer lifetime value is becoming the de facto standard for measuring success.

“Retail is moving in two directions – on one hand, functional and convenient one-click sales are becoming ever more crucial, but on the other, there’s a huge customer demand for expertise, experience, and human-to-human connections. The organisations that neatly shape their businesses to ensure they cater for these two distinct shopper types will be those that surely win in the long run.”

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