Customer service in the Retail Revolution

Traditionally, the retail sector has taken the lead in customer service excellence.

This is because when retail managers walked about their stores, they interacted with customers and received direct feedback as part of their daily duties. However, technology is revolutionising the retail sector – online stores, social media, mobile shopping and shopping apps are changing customer expectations and the way retailers engage with their customers.

This has led to new challenges and opportunities for today’s retailers. Through eCommerce, retailers can now reach more customers from all over the world. The fact that someone can order an item one day and have it delivered the next, sets a high bar in terms of expectations. While this can lead to a greater number of complaints that are spread through social media, it also means positive experiences are similarly shared. One thing is certain – in today’s crowded landscape, delivering excellent customer service has become a key differentiator to help retailers maintain their competitiveness.  

The retail revolution is here and retailers need to pay attention to specific issues when it comes to delivering good customer service. These include managing social media, dealing with the holiday spike, representing the customer’s voice, and having the proper tools to scale effectively.

Social media – the customer megaphone

Today, no business can cover up bad customer service due to the growing popularity of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and online blogs. Every customer has a megaphone for sharing positive and negative experiences. Savvy retailers can take steps to capitalise on the positive aspects by encouraging the viral nature of social media. They should also mitigate any negative effects, by quickly responding to complaints and addressing concerns.

Another advantage of social media is that retailers can get more accurate feedback from the customer. Some individuals may be hesitant to giving direct criticism. This means if they are unhappy with a particular product or service, instead of letting the retail manager know, they simply never return. By monitoring the right social media platforms, retailers are given an additional opportunity to discover and fix any problems.

To leverage on social media, the retail business needs to work out who within the organisations is responsible for managing the different social media platforms. Depending on the size and type of organisation, as well as expertise of employees, this could be the marketing department, customer service teams or even just one employee. The most important thing is that every customer request made over social media needs to be responded to in a timely manner, even if it’s just to say “Thank you!”

The holiday spike – high sales and high stress levels

The US-based National Retail Federation revealed that some retailers can bring in 20 to 40 per cent of their annual sales in the period leading up to Christmas. And while this is fantastic news, it brings with it a whole host of problems for the company. In addition to dealing with the sudden, temporary increase in sales volume, retailers must appropriately handle customers that may be more difficult than during other periods of the year. This is because people tend to be more stressed or agitated due to the holiday rush, requiring customer service staff to calm them down. Customers also tend to make purchase decisions less thoughtfully or are less familiar with the product, resulting in more purchase regrets and returns – which also requires additional support from the customer service team.

Zendesk’s research shows that customer satisfaction with service interactions consistently drops during the holiday season. The main reason for this “dip” in satisfaction is because the increase in shopping means that the number of customer requests per agent also increases, resulting in less time spent per customer.

Retail businesses can prepare for the holiday spike by temporarily hiring more employees, re-distributing staff responsibilities beyond the regular customer service team, outsourcing to a partner, or investing in a customer service platform that boosts self-service capabilities and streamlines workflow. It is a good idea to have the necessary measures in place at least one month before the rush commences, to reduce likelihood of any hiccups.

Customer advocacy – become the ‘voice’ of the customer

Since retail companies are interacting less with their customers face-to-face, it is advisable that a team (typically the customer service department) becomes the customer advocate. This team can proactively push data to senior management on customer satisfaction surveys, reports on interactions with positive or negative ratings and other information captured by the customer service system that will help the company understand the customer better.

For direct-to-customer retailers, the business can typically manage the customer experience easily, since they manage the entire process – from developing product features to manufacturing, marketing and distribution. For example, if many customers make enquiries about a how certain product feature works, the business can choose to simplify the product, or provide better instructions on how to use the feature.

For retailers with a more complex distribution process, customer advocacy becomes challenging, as the retailer does not have control over the end-to-end customer experience. In these situations, customers may buy the same product from the retailers’ own outlet, online websites, or at other locations, such as department stores. However, when a problem crops up, customers do not care about the business arrangements with other partners, they just want the issue sorted out. As such, it may make sense to have a central platform (such as the retailer’s website) that deals with all customer inquiries. It also involves good communications with the various partners, to quickly make the referral and ensure the customer’s problem is dealt with.

Scaling without spending

As a retail business grows, high volumes of transactions can make customer service challenging. The customer service team must be able to scale to support these increasing transactions, preferably without increasing headcount. This is where good customer service solutions are required – processes that are simple so non tech-savvy customers and agents can use them. These include self service capabilities (like customer FAQs), templates so agents can respond quickly to standard inquiries and the ability to check agent performance, in particular with new employees or during the holiday season.

Customers should receive a consistent experience, whether they contact the business via email, phone, website or social media. As companies scale, it is also important to have the right reporting tools. These can gather metrics such as top contact reason, contacts per week, average wait time, time to close the request and customer satisfaction. Such information can support key business decisions.

The retail industry has gone through significant changes in recent years, operating with heightened customer expectations in an environment that is more global and public than ever before. Without doubt, there are likely to be more changing trends in the near future. By continuing to deliver excellent customer service, retailers can leverage on these dynamic trends for positive business outcomes.

Timothy Kua


* Timothy Kua is director of field marketing (APAC) at Zendesk, a leading cloud-based customer service platform that brings organisations and their customers closer together.

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