“I was trying to spend a few thousand dollars and no one would talk to me,” recalled my neighbor Sherrie about a recent Home Depot visit. She went on to explain that her only option for information in the vast appliance section came in the form of a touch screen kiosk. There were no employees in sight. “I went to understand the different refrigerators options, but I first need to use a computer? When I finally flagged down an employee, they couldn’t answer any questions,” she said of her experience.
While retailers such as Home Depot seek to understand how technology can improve the customer experience in their physical stores, consumers are struggling to see any benefit. Technology solutions are applied to problems that customers don’t have and often conflict with the purpose of a customer’s in-store visit. There is, however, an opportunity to improve the customer experience by focusing on an often ignored segment: employees.
A technically enabled and informed employee is often at the center of a great customer experience. It’s one reason why we covet the Apple retail store. At Apple there isn’t a single large technology play but rather a series of relevant moments orchestrated by the staff. Apple employees begin the script by asking a customer “What would you like you to do today?” As pointed out by Apple blogger, Tim Barajin, this is an empowering twist on the classic retail greeting of “How may I help you?”
Apple associates then proceed to direct customers to relevant products, help process payments or transition them to the Genius bar. Another recent example is eyewear disruptor Warby Parker’s, use of physical locations and staff to promote a business model initially rooted in online convenience. Warby Parker is also replacing robot-answering services with, get this, people who answer the phones at their call center.
Technology rooted companies, like Apple and Warby Parker, see employees (along with great products) as a pillar of their retail service design. Traditional retailers however, in a race to embrace technical automation often neglect the employee. This is often at the expense of customers like Sherrie. For some, there’s still time to realign a retail strategy.
Here are some things to consider if you’re looking to improve the customer experience by way of your employees:
Employee Discovery: Learning about customers is important but spending time interviewing and shadowing store level employees can spark some great ideas. This is where your team will get details about customer problems and behaviors along with employee workarounds or “hacks” that speed up tasks.
Concept Solutions and Launch Support: At a minimum, take a two week sprint to concept, create user experience (UX) prototypes and test ideas specifically aimed to make employees more knowledgeable in their role. Even if the ideas don’t initially make it to production, the fact that your team listened to employees and tried to solve their problems will pay off when building launch support.
Feedback Loops and a Learning Culture:User Experience prototypes also help promote the concept of a learning organization. While your team will facilitate and explain the benefits during the initial project, in the long term these feedback loops can channel employee suggestions. Who knows, shining a light on a “hack” that helps one employee save twenty minutes a day can potentially save millions of dollars if scaled to other locations.
Retail executives have an impulse and often a ticking clock to innovate. These decision makers should consider looking internally in order to make a significant impact. Helping build a culture centered around employee contribution and empowerment will not only improve the customer experience but can transform the organization.