Last year, I had the privilege of editing a book called “Fresh Customer Service” by Michael D. Brown, a motivational speaker and career coach with extensive experience as a frontline retail employee and executive. Brown bases his customer service theory on the radical notion that by putting the customer second and the frontline employee first, you will likely create a frontline environment that is more comfortable and convenient for customers and employees alike.
“Fresh Customer Service” is not a technology book per se and deals mostly with how to manage frontline employees in a way that lets them know they are respected, valued and taken seriously. But its theories and strategies can easily be applied to how you implement technologies that aid and enable frontline customer service.
When applying technology to frontline customer service, most retailers have at least one of two basic goals in mind: allowing customers to shop with minimal employee interaction, and reducing employee headcount as much as possible. After all, who needs a store associate to answer questions about product specs when that information can easily be provided via an interactive kiosk?
While this approach to frontline customer service and technology may make sense in terms of reducing budget allocations for employee recruitment, training, salary and benefits, it does not necessarily help the customer. As much as customers may complain about ill-informed store associates with poor attitudes, for the most part they are not looking to replace human interaction with computer interaction. Customers are looking to interact with knowledgeable humans who are ready and willing to provide assistance.
Many retailers follow a misguided notion that replacing live employees with kiosks, mobile devices and self-checkout terminals is “putting the customer first.” But what about the customer who is not computer-literate (even in 2008, many of them are out there and probably shopping at your stores) or does not feel like pushing a bunch of buttons? What happens when inevitable computer glitches and failures occur, or a customer has a multi-layered inquiry that an automated system simply cannot adequately handle?
Better Technology, Better Employees
This is where putting your frontline employees first comes into play. You can certainly use technology to offer your customers self-service options, but why not focus just as much or more on using technology to enable your employees to provide better customer service?
A store associate who is already familiar with your product assortment, distribution schedule and customer service policies can do far more armed with a PDA or informational kiosk than a customer who possesses little or none of this knowledge. In addition, self-service technologies can greatly reduce the time and effort required to recruit and train employees and perform basic HR functions.
Once your frontline employees see that you are investing in technologies that will help them do their jobs better rather than eliminate their jobs, their morale should soar. Customers will quickly forget the user interface on a self-service kiosk, but they will long remember a smiling associate who went out of his or her way to answer questions and provide service.
Will there be associates who still have bad attitudes and don’t bother to upgrade their customer service skill sets despite your best efforts to provide them with enabling technologies? Of course. But work force reductions based on merit (or lack thereof) will be far less damaging to overall morale than work force reductions based on wholesale replacement of people by machines.
So if you are considering a frontline technology upgrade, don’t be afraid to put the customer second in your strategic planning. Providing an optimal customer experience may depend on it.
Dan Berthiaume covers the retail market for eWEEK. For more, go to the eWEEK retail site.