Even as some stores reopen and more inventory is made available via e-commerce, Fang Cheng is well aware that the retail customer journey of the future is unlikely to be a linear one.
As the CEO of San Francisco-based Linc, which provides a set of omni-channel customer experience (CX) management tools, Cheng has watched closely as retailers weather the perfect storm brought on by COVID-19.
What she’s seen has included an increase in online transactions, the shift of customer service teams to remote work models and store reopening that sometimes look like one step forward, followed by two steps back.
“Even as things start improving and store reopening are happening, digital interactions for customer support are at an elevated level, and they bring new challenges,” Cheng told 360 Magazine. “The reopening can also be confusing because some regions open first and others don’t. In some cases they have to reverse course. There’s a lot of uneven service topologies that are forcing retails to be dynamic in how they respond.”
Beyond its traditional applications, in February Linc released what it called an Omnichannel Pickup Support Digital Worker. Cheng described it as a tool to assist with customer communication via channels such as SMS, social messaging and smart devices that use Amazon Alexa.
“Not all businesses have the luxury to have signage up in a dedicated parking spot. They often share it with others,” she pointed out. “Curbside existed before the pandemic, but it’s become much more of a critical and in many cases it’s still the only way of shopping at the store.”
For that reason and others, chat and messaging channels have also become a bigger priority for many retailers, but Cheng warned that not all are created equal. There’s a difference in the experience and customer expectations of using a chat or messaging function that connects to live agents or those that are automated and available 24/7.
She said Linc’s technology is helping retailers coordinate synchronous and asynchronous service through those channels, as well as making the hand-off between an automated chat and a human agent more seamless. Otherwise, when customers leave a chat session the relationship can be lost, she added.
While service departments have historically focused on what happens after customers have bought an item, Cheng said the post-pandemic experience for retailers should also emphasize the “research” phase of the journey, which is now increasingly digital.
Take a brand like Levi’s, a Linc client that sells denim jeans. Ideally, that’s the kind of item a customer would have preferred to try on first, but that may not be possible or preferable now. As a result, she said Levi’s is now seeing 54 per cent of customer enquires through chat channels is now about pre-purchase questions and concerns.
The same will likely be true of retailers selling other kinds of products, from mattresses to groceries. Brands are putting their marketing into high gear to woo customers back, but all those promotions will trigger more outreach, she said.
“There is so much research that goes into the buying decision,” she said. “Retailers are recognizing now that, ‘I don’t have the store associates to manage that.’ Very often they’ve found their agent team is not even trained to address these types of demand. That’s a definitely been a shift in the KPIs.”
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.