02.16.2017 By: Anne-Marie Goulet

Can a store associate really build a relationship with a customer?

If someone asked me this question two years ago, I’d have said no. My skepticism comes from having worked in retail at both the store and head office levels over the course of 10 years, followed by many interesting shopping experiences as a consumer.  I’ve worked at Future Shop (now Best Buy) followed by French Connection, and finally Town Shoes and The Shoe Company.  By and large, my role as a front-line worker was to transact, find sizes/product, or fold clothing.

But by using customer information and enhanced analytics that pulls online customer data into stores, associates can now personalize their interactions and get to one-to-one selling.  With the right tools, store associates can take on revenue-generating, relationship-building tasks.

I recall only one instance–and not for a lack of trying–as an associate at French Connection, where I was the go-to associate for a regular shopper. I came to know her by name and she always made sure to come to me for style advice. The monotony of folding clothes or just standing and greeting was disrupted by a sense of purpose. I found common ground, I provided advice based on her likes, and over time, she grew to trust me.   And trust is the foundation of any relationship.

Trust is earned, not bought.

When asked, only 12% of shoppers rated loyalty programs as one of their top five reasons to shop with a particular retailer. The ubiquity of loyalty programs today has diluted the value of the rewards which also lack differentiation across brands. But more importantly, shopper’s values are changing and what they consider table stakes today, is still a ways away for most retailers.

How to lose trust

Each time a customer interacts with your brand, it is an opportunity to either build trust, or lose it. Here are some examples of where I’ve seen things go wrong:

  1. I’ve received a promo online and then find out it’s no longer available in-store, or that location doesn’t actually carry the item.  The classic “bait and switch”.
  2. I’m promised “easy returns” for items purchased online, but spend far too much time marching through the store to return items to their respective departments.
  3. I cannot locate an associate or an associate who can actually help me
  4. There are not enough associates to checkout customers

How to earn trust

In order to build trust and emotional loyalty, retailers must refocus on providing excellent and consistent execution of the basics of in-store service, including:

  1. Available, informed, empowered sales associates
  2. The right product inventory
  3. Products that are easy to find
  4. A Checkout process that is fast and easy
  5. Options to test drive or try products
  6. Detailed product information in the store
  7. Easy returns

Many attempts at loyalty programs fail to resonate because they are far too one-dimensional and do not account for the different drivers for what keep customers engaged. They fail to create a sense of “emotional loyalty”, according to Gartner.

One size does not fit all.

This notion of relationships, building trust, and emotional loyalty with customers has traditionally been reserved for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Burberry, where it’s also much easier to conceptualize. Whereas for stores like H&M, Dollar General, and Toys”R”Us, it’s less clear but no less important.

“When store associates were enabled with access to endless aisle, product details, and inventory, a large specialty retailer saw a double-digit increase in basket-size.”

No matter which store, shoppers, like myself, are demanding to be met with a more knowledgeable, even personal, interaction that provides me a faster and smoother experience–every time.

Relationships and emotional loyalty can be defined and quantified in different ways, starting with store associate engagement and agility levels. This can be executed by exploiting consumer-oriented styles and technologies, like an iPad or iPod touch. If done well, retailers can deliver a more mobile, social, accessible, and data-driven work environment.

“Missed sales of top and commodity items decreased by 68% with visibility to all-channel inventory”

Below are examples of how the ways different retail models can establish emotional loyalty and customer satisfaction:

Dollar General, The Knowledge Worker

  • Fully stocked shelves
  • Knowledgeable, approachable, available store associates
  • Access to product inventory and location
  • Fast check-outs and line-busting

H&M, The Style Advisor

  • Approachable, available store associates trained to aid in the shopping experience
  • Associates with fast, easy access to product inventory, size, and style options
  • Access customer profiles with past shopping and browsing history, as well as linked social profiles
  • Send notifications to customers when out of stock merchandise arrives
  • Fast check-outs and line-busting

Burberry, My Personal Stylist & Confidante

  • Elite selling professionals with expert knowledge of manufacturing, product, and style details
  • Understanding of fashion and ability to make style recommendations with ease and confidence
  • Intimate knowledge of customer shopping history, buying habits, and life milestones
  • Schedule appointments or meetings, build a seasonal closet
  • Send emails and SMS directly not only to sell, but to continue lines of communication

The many faced customer

Focus on providing solutions to specific customer segments and sets of needs, as opposed to applying a one-size-fits-all approach. Let’s take Lowe’s or another DIY retailer as an example. They see common segments include: the handyman, the pro, as well as the new homeowners. Store associates need to be able to answer a wide gambit of difficult questions and with varying degrees of expertise.

Segment #1: The Novice

  • Customer Profile: owns a personal property (house or condo); shops at Lowe’s a few times per year.
  • Customer’s main objectives: he wants to be able to locate product, ask advice, learn how to use product in basic sense.
  • Retailer promise: all associates equipped with mobile devices to answer most commonly asked questions and provide recommendations on the best product for their usage; video tutorials that can be shared with the customer on how to execute a project.

Segment #2: The Amateur

  • Customer Profile: he refers to himself as a “handyman” and has completed a few renos over the years; he shops at Lowe’s a couple of times per week.
  • Customer’s main objectives: he wants to be able to locate and compare products, as well as validate inquiries
  • Retailer promise: all associates equipped with mobile devices and are able to answer more technical questions, provide recommendations to less commonly asked questions; provide recommendations on the best product for their use; video tutorials they can share with customer on how to execute on project.

Segment #3: The Pro

  • Customer Profile: he’s a professional tradesman and is on-site every day; he shops at Lowe’s several times per week; is also a sub-contractor of Lowe’s.
  • Customer’s main objectives: he wants to be able to locate product and transact as fast as possible.
  • Retailer promise: all associates should be equipped with mobile devices with some who are trained and able to provide expert recommendations on products, execution, and maintenance.

Relationships pay off.

For Dominique Essig, Chief Experience Officer at Bonobos, focusing on relationship building, segmentation, and the right kind of personalization leads to driving major increases in revenue. In fact, since replacing laptops with Tulip-enabled iPads with access to CRM and mPOS, Bonobos has seen an increase of 12% in average order value and an increase of 4.7% in units per transaction. Customer satisfaction and net promoter scores are up across the board as well.

Whether the retail model at hand is a one-to-one boutique or corner store; or an impersonalized mass store chain; or a pure-play ecommerce: the key to building a customer relationship is delivering on your brand promise, establishing trust, providing valuable service and delivering an enjoyable shopping experience. If your sales associates are able to do that in the store, they’ll end up with relationships with their customers.  In other words, they’ll have customers that like them and look forward to interacting with them.  For Essig, the experience “can’t be so one-to-one or so utilitarian that it’s a commodity function,” instead, “it’s a mix of focusing on the customer by bringing together the different ways they want to interact with you.”

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