One of the challenges I see taking place in the retail sector is how the definition of customer service is changing. Take, for example, returning product. Most traditional retailers will happily exchange a product if the size etc is wrong however many will not refund the purchase and merely provide a credit. On the other end of the spectrum internet retailers of significant scale appear happy to provide a full refund if you are not happy with the purchase. Check out the returns policy from asos - http://www.asos.com/help/pgehtml.aspx?cid=17989#/level10.
Whilst some retailers are struggling to come to terms with the change in customer expectations others are doing a better job at creating a seamless experience across the various shopping channels. This approach, often referred to as Omni retailing, was articulated by Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren almost three years ago when he said:
"We talk a lot at Macy’s about “omnichannel” retailing. Our customer is multi-dimensional. She is busy at work and out with friends. She always has her mobile device in her hand. She’s active on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and a dozen other social media sites. She is smart and demanding. We want that customer to be able to interact with Macy’s no matter where she is or how she shops. It makes no difference to us whether she buys something in our store or online … or whether she is shopping from her desktop computer or her Droid or her iPad. Macy’s best customers are those who shop us in-stores and online. We have a whole series of strategies in place to drive our store customers to the Web, and our online customer to the stores. We strive to have a 360-degree view of the customer. Today’s customer is not monolithic. And that’s the way we are approaching our customer."
When reviewing Macy's instore refund policy vs their internet refund policy one can see the 'omni' approach:
1 - Store policy - https://customerservice.macys.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/612/~/return-policy-for-store-purchases
2 - Internet policy - http://www.macys.com/service/contact/international/faqs/returns.jsp
The true challenge for traditional retailers is not simply improving customer service but adapting to 'Omni' view of the customer without overburdening the business in increased expenses. Customers expect to deal with experts in the store who can provide knowledgeable solutions, just as big data helps tailor options to the shopper based on their specific purchasing habits online. This provides a challenge for the traditional retailer in that retail floor staff are an expense not borne by online retailers. Even more so if retailers are to provide experts where such expert knowledge may come at a cost over and above the standard floor staff rate. One solution may be as simple as providing all floor staff with a tablet. Imagine approaching a Customer Service Representative who knows the floor product well but also refers to the website for product information. At the same time the service rep could point to the tablet showing similar items others have purchased.
There is no doubt that the advent of online retailing has been disruptive for traditional retailers. Considering the Netscape Navigator (early browser for those not familiar with the name) launched nearly 20 years ago we can all marvel at the impressively slow response of so many retailers to the world of shopping. However, as I always tell clients, it is a hell of a lot easier to criticize a decision than it is to fix a business. Solutions to the challenge appear available however the challenge to run an Omni approach will lie in the ability to manage the cost base whilst providing the desired level of customer service. This may sound logical but according to my colleague, great customer service meant not dealing with customer service. Go figure?