Why store associates must play a critical role in customer experience

| by Judy Mottl
Why store associates must play a critical role in customer experience

Photo: iStock.com

While retailers are striving to deliver a rewarding retail experience, they aren't paying attention to one big fact: today's consumers crave human interaction, and retailers are failing to provide that interaction.

That's because retailers are not training the store associate to serve as the front line in the customer experience, and those failures are leading to fewer browse-to-buy conversions, weak consumer loyalty and, ultimately, a diminishing revenue stream.

"The simple fact is, over 50% of consumers are still making their final purchases in-store," Jordan Ekers, chief customer officer at Nudge Rewards, told RetailCustomerExperience in an email interview. "Yes, e-commerce and m-commerce have been growing over the past decade, but it seems many retailers have lost sight of the importance of the brick-and-mortar store, and the value that managers and associates can bring to overall customer experience."

Retailers must realize consumers shopping in-store are more knowledgeable than ever, and that means associates need to be as well. In addition, just 27 percent of consumers believe name-brand retailers are trying to provide exceptional service, noted Ekers.

"At the end of the day, your associates act as the face of your brand and, in many cases, are the starting point for customer experience. Providing great service for customers now means associates must go the extra mile, by offering assistance in shopping, locating stock and providing product expertise," he said.

Associates represent the ‘last mile' in customer experience

Logan Rodriguez, director of retail at Square Root, believes retailers haven't lost sight of how valuable the associate is to the business but have lost sight of the impact the associates can have on the in-store experience.

"While it's true the changing face of retail is putting pressure on the industry, retailers still place a lot of value on their in-store teams. Store associates are on the front lines and are vital to emulating the company brand throughout a customer's in-store experience," he told RetailCustomerExperience in an email interview.

"The challenge for many brands is to create an engaging and consistent experience that keeps customers coming back. It's clear when brands have and have not figured this out. For those that have, returning customers are loyal," he added.

The other challenge, according to Rodriguez, is creating a working environment that directly supports store managers and associates. He cited a recent national study in which just 32 percent of store managers said they have the number of associates needed, and only 42 percent of respondents feel they currently have the tools and training needed to be successful.

"Retailers need to reinvest in their teams and implement better training programs and tools for their associates. Empowering them to make actionable decisions will pay off in delivery of a better front-end customer experience," he said.

Ekers said retailers should view and treat the store associate as the "last mile" in delivering a great in-store experience.

"When implementing your customer experience strategy, you will discover that store managers and associates are an extremely valuable piece of the puzzle. After all, what is the point of putting a CX program in place if your front-line teams aren't knowledgeable and motivated about executing on it?" he said.

Tips to bolstering the associate impact in CX

Ekers offered up several best practices retailers can undertake to ensure the associate is playing a compelling part in the customer experience.

The first step in keeping associates involved in the CX strategy is strong communication.

"We recommend finding a communication tool that will effectively reach all employees (not just your local managers), to keep them in the loop and up-to-date. In today's workforce, that typically means mobile first. Whether that is a mobile-first portal or employee app, using a channel that gives you a direct line of communication with the frontline will make all the difference," he explained

A second best step within that communication strategy is to provide information in a concise, interactive and actionable way.

Ekers cited an Edelman study which revealed frontline managers and associates spent just two minutes a day on corporate communications.

"Give your associates insight into how they're contributing to CX, and how simple, small actions (for example, greeting customers at the store front) make a big impact. Further, we have seen great results with gamifying initiatives by creating team-based challenges or goals in turn for rewards."

A good third step is surveying associates for feedback.

"After all, they are the ones interacting with your customers on a day-to-day basis. Ask them for feedback and ideas concerning customer experience — what is working well? What could be improved? What have you heard from customers? Getting insight directly from the frontline is one of the most effective ways to measure how your CX initiatives are going — and to be able to reiterate and improve," said Ekers.

Emerging digital tech no replacement for human interaction

As Square Root's Rodriguez noted, retailers also need to understand another critical factor when it comes to the invaluable role of the associate: new digital tools, robotics and Internet of Things capabilities will never lessen, or replace, the associate and the consumer need for human interaction.

"There is a lot of hype around robotics and IoT in retail, but we're 10 to 15 years away from widespread adoption. And, even then, we don't expect to see a massive change in the role of the store associate for two key reasons," he said.

That's because humans will always crave human interaction. A Square Root national study reported 65 percent of consumers said they like to touch, see and feel products in person before purchase.

Secondly, said Rodriguez, convenience is a huge driver for in-store shoppers.

"While it's argued online shopping is king for convenience, 61 percent of consumers like the ability to get their products faster in-store versus online, and 46 percent still go in-store to avoid shipping fees," he said.

That data supports the contention that the associate role will continue to be one of delivering an exceptional experience.

"This is something robots and AI features won't be able to replicate for a long time. Consider self-checkout lines, which made their debut in grocery stores about a decade ago — while it's convenient, most consumers still flock to aisles where there is a human cashier. Right now, retailers need to prioritize their human teams, and provide them with the right tools and training they need to deliver an unmatched in-store experience," he said.

The same scenario is true as contactless tools become more prominent, Rodriguez added.

"The key to retaining loyal shoppers in retail will be delivering a true omnichannel, customer-oriented experience. In the end, meeting customer expectations is what will separate the winners from the losers, whether digital or physical."

Tips on ensuring the associate role plays a valuable role

A key aspect in making sure the associate role plays a strong part in customer experience is recognizing and rewarding the associate and their effort.

"When your associates are engaged in company culture, knowledgeable on in-market promotions, and share valuable ideas, they should be recognized. Small things can go a long way. Something as simple as acknowledging when an employee goes the extra mile in servicing a customer or recognizing an employee's achievement amongst their peers can do wonders to boost morale and performance," explained Ekers, who noted performance- based rewards, in addition to monetary bonuses or gift cards, can include things such as paid days off, or a team pizza party.

"In a world that is so focused on providing digital, seamless experiences for consumers throughout their buying journey, it seems the frontline employee has somehow been left behind," he said.

"It's important not to forget about your most valuable asset — your people. The most effective marketing tactic an organization can have is a team of frontline employees acting as ambassadors and delivering on the brand promise. Stepping up the communications game with a focus on meaningful engagement with all employees — from corporate to frontline associates — is the first step in getting there."

Topics: Assisted Selling, Consumer Behavior, Customer Experience, Customer Service, Employee Training, Omnichannel / Multichannel, Psychology, Retail - General, Shopper Marketing, Workforce Management

Companies: Nudge Rewards

Judy Mottl

Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

wwwView Judy Mottl's profile on LinkedIn

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