Posts Tagged ‘Customer service’


Stop Treating Your Customers as an Interruption

Barbeque: Customer Unhappy with FoodI want to encourage you to look at the ways that you, your business, and your employees may be making your customers feel like they’re interrupting your business, rather than that they are the point of your business.  If you make them feel like an interruption, they’ll get a pretty clear message that their patronage as a customer doesn’t mean that much to you. A feeling that they’ll ultimately reciprocate, by not forming much of an attachment to your business, either. 

Here are specific behaviors, some general and some specific to particular types of workplaces, that are guaranteed to make a customer feel like an interruption, rather than central to your company’s existence.

• Foodservice workers: Remember to yield at any potential collision point within your restaurant. In fact, not only should you be yielding if a collision is otherwise imminent, you should be using your senses to allow you to yield before the guest even realizes that there is a potential collision point.

• Physicians, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners: Stop standing in the exam room while talking with (seated) patients. And please, please get your hand off the doorknob (making it seem like you wish that you were already out the door).

All customer-facing employees: Never talk with your co-workers—never—without situating yourself in a way that allows you to use your direct or peripheral senses to allow you to stop when a customer approaches, before the customer is made to feel that they’re taking you away from how you’d rather be spending your time.   (To put this bluntly: Your customer probably won’t appreciate coming in contact with your backside before your face.) When you do talk with co-workers, never—even for a minute–make a customer or potential customer wait for you to finish your conversation, even if your conversation is work-related. Drop that conversation mid-sentence, assist the customer, and then come back to it after.

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To summarize what these points have in common: You make your customers feel like an interruption when you fail to serve them with speed and enthusiasm.  In many business situations, of course the customer will, eventually, be served; there’s no way to definitively ignore them.  If a customer’s standing at a counter awaiting service, they’re not going to be flat-out turned down. But will they get served after the nearest employee puts down her cell phone with a tiny accompanying grimace? After she finishes the note she is writing? After she finishes the sentence or paragraph she is sharing with her co-worker? Or right away, and with a smile?  The difference here is a matter of seconds, or even just milliseconds. But that brief time span, and the attitude it evokes, makes all the difference in how the customer feels about your company.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: 3 Ways to Attract Millennials to Your Customer Service Jobs

Young Man Making a Video CallCan you get Millennial employees to work in customer service roles? If you’ve swallowed the conventional wisdom about this generation—that they’re entitled, spoiled and hard to work with—you may think there’s no way you could convince them to take a “lowly” entry-level customer service role. But the conventional wisdom about Millennials workers is far from true. Here are three things you really need to know about Millennials to attract more of them to customer service jobs.

  1. Millennials want their work to be meaningful and make a difference. Focus on how customer service jobs fit into the larger goals of your company, such as improving the customer experience, making your business best-in-class, helping the company grow and helping people feel good about your products and services.
  2. Financial security is a big concern for Millennial employees. Perhaps because so many have seen friends and family struggle to find jobs in a rough economy, 70 percent of recent college grads in the latest Way to Work survey from Adecco Staffing USA say stability and security is what they want most from a job. In fact, stability is more important than high pay in selecting a first job, survey respondents say. Benefits, such as a 401(k) or other retirement savings plan, matter to this age group, too.
  3. More than anything else, Millennials are looking for career advancement. You’ll have an advantage in hiring them if you can show that you promote from within and how entry-level customer service roles can lead to more responsibility, either in customer service or other roles. Since customer service is often seen as a short-term job, it’s important to explain that it actually has a career path and what it can lead to.

By keeping these tips in mind, you’ll have an edge in attracting these vital and energetic employees to your customer service positions.


Scenography: A Ritz-Carlton Secret For Creating A Magical Customer Experience

A frustration I have as a customer service consultant is the difficulty of convincing business leaders I work with to think in a less transactional, less fractured manner about the customer experience, to correct their misconception that improving independent pieces of the customer experience in isolation is sufficient, as if customers will logically tally up every aspect of working with their company and then dispassionately rate it.

This, of course, isn’t how the customer mind–the human mind–operates. Instead, a customer either decides that she enjoys being your customer or decides that she doesn’t. Your challenge in business, therefore, is to create this state of enjoyment for your customers: to envision what pleasure looks like for your customer and then­–and only then–get to work on the individual pieces that will make up this whole.

One approach I’ve had success with in getting this through the heads of leaders is to ask them to think of directing a movie with their customer as the star.  Once you decide to direct such a movie, and to put the customer (rather than your business, its processes, its internal org chart) in the starring role, we can get to work creating a tremendous customer experience.

Scenography at the Ritz-Carlton

There’s nothing more potentially interchangeable than a hotel room. Rectangular, built to particular safety standards, available at a particular price point.  What infuses a hotel room, and the surrounding property, with life is the experience of the guests within it.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company works every day to escape the commodity rut by taking the idea of moviemaking seriously, to the point of set design, music, lighting, and the rest. In Ritz-Carlton lingo, their approach is called “scenography.”

What “scenography” consists of is a little bit soft-focus, gauzy, hard to pin down.  And that’s the magic of it.  Scenography isn’t about features. Spec sheets. Room upgrades, and other easily-copied competitive advantages.  It’s about creating a feeling.

Scenography involves creating a property-wide theme and supporting it with accompanying design elements, lighting, cast participation and so forth (I think you get the theatrical metaphor here, so I won’t belabor it).

This overarching theme supports the specific hotel or resort’s “sense of place,” its uniqueness, even its quirkiness, something that has been an important change in the Ritz-Carlton brand's identity from its earlier, more cookie-cutter incarnation.
bagpipper

For example, Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, perched as it is above the Pacific Ocean, has adopted a theme related to sunset:  Candles.  S’mores or wine around the firepits. A bagpiper who plays each night as the sun falls into the sea.

Or look at (listen to, really) what’s going on at Ritz-Carlton’s Dove Mountain Resort, in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Guests having cocktails outside its Ignite bar will suddenly hear melodies played on a handmade wood flute by a Native American musician (pictured below) who is perched on a hill some ways away from the hotel–played in a way that makes use of the answering echoes from the opposing mountains. Giving an auditory guide, in a sense, to the local landscape.

sonoran desert

The thing is, I’m laying out these component elements for you individually because, well, it’s my job as a customer service consultant to break things down into their individual components to see how a “whole” has been created.  But in practice, if you ask a Ritz-Carlton guest what they loved about their visit to, for example, Half Moon Bay, the answer is by and large “it was great,” not “the bagpiper played a modal air for eight repetitions before retiring for the evening.” Because the elements are designed and executed in a way that lets the guest, the “star,” go about their activities, but with critical enhancements that they wouldn’t necessarily notice on their own but would miss if the elements were absent.

To succeed with scenography requires first and foremost creativity on the part of the hotel staff.  This creativity has to reach all the way up to the traditionally RevPar (revenue per available room)-obsessed General Manager and throughout the ranks of the employees to make the program a success. Rather than there being a list of “ten rules for successful scenography,” the rules that matter are more like the following, to paraphrase Fred Dust from Ideo, a creative firm that was involved in the creation of scenography. “1.  Leaders, be more creative!” and 2. “Empower your employees to be more creative as well.”

The Ritz-Carlton’s commitment to scenography is such that they’ve written into their business plans that every year each individual hotel GM has to deliver three unique scenes as part of this scenography. Let me say that again: this fluffy, fuzzy idea of scenography is required now as part of each property’s business plan, to lay out that “these are the scenes we are going to be working on this year, and here’s the date that we’ll put them into motion.”

The thing about the creativity requirement is that it’s not just required to create these scenarios. The requirement for staff creativity continues to be important in implementation, in keeping each hotel property from becoming a slave to its pre-determined theme. Because every guest is unique, and the concept of creating, directing, supporting scenes needs to be modified, sometimes on the fly, based on the nature of the guest and the visit. For example: If you’re not much of a drinker, you can count on Half Moon Bay’s empathetic staff to pick up on this and not force their “red wine by the firepit” theme down your throat.

Ditto for smaller touchpoints, each instance of which may require adjustment for each guest: A stressed and jetlagged exec arriving at two in the morning needs one “scene” while   leisurely lovers arriving midday need another, and so forth.   The same approaches apply: preparing for likely scenarios (such as these two) and throwing out the script if something even more unusual is called for.  Creativity, again, carries the day.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: Why You Need Customer Service Meetings

People in a Business MeetingHandling customer service is a 24/7 job for a small business, so it’s tempting to let regular meetings with your customer service employees fall by the wayside. Don’t. Meeting regularly with your team is essential to keeping your customer service stellar. Here are topics you and your team should discuss at your meetings:

Weekly:

Weekly customer service meetings should be fairly quick—30 minutes to an hour at most—to keep the team energized and enthusiastic (and informed).

  • Briefly review issues that have come up since the last meeting, such as specific customer service problems that representatives had difficulty resolving. Discussing these with the whole team enables you to tap into everyone’s experience to come up with guidelines that all your customer service reps can follow if the situation arises again.
  • Review the prior week’s customer service metrics such as average time for a call to be answered, average time spent on a call, average number of contacts for an issue to be resolved, etc. This can be done quickly to see if you are on track to meet your goals or if you’re falling behind.
  • Introduce new business such as new employees on the customer service team, new systems or procedures, and new products or services that customer service employees need to know about.
  • Reward outstanding customer service representatives by honoring employees who went “above and beyond” in the past week. Be sure to explain how what the person did can be a model for other customer service employees in the future and what lesson should be learned from the actions.

Monthly:

At monthly customer service meetings, it’s a good idea to focus on one subject in depth. This could include:

  • Explore your metrics over the past month in depth to note trends and, if necessary, brainstorm ideas for improving performance. For instance, if you notice calls are taking longer than desired, is this because employees are having trouble resolving problems, or because they’re spending more time interacting to build customer relationships? If the former, find a way to fix it—if the latter, perhaps you should set longer goal times for calls.
  • Providing extensive training about new products and/or services. You might bring vendors in to demonstrate new products, or offer in-house training in how to resolve potential problems with a new product or service.

While technology can help streamline service, there’s no substitute for meetings with your customer service employees if you want to help them be the best they can be. 


Millennials Are The Biggest Generation Of Customers In History (Here’s What They’re Looking For)

Friends shopping together and using smart phoneHere’s the story you already know. Millions of soldiers, sailors and airmen return from World War II to the embrace of millions of riveting Rosies, apparently very riveting, judging by the fruitful output of these couples during the postwar decades: 2.4 children per couple, the biggest generation America has ever seen. These kids, the Baby Boomers, grow up to transform the social and economic landscape of a nation.

Now, here’s the story you’ve heard less often: The baby boom has happened again, and then some. The Boomers themselves, in the fullness of time, have given birth to an even bigger generation. Their offspring, the millennials (also known as Gen Y), are the young adults and teenagers born between 1980 and 2000 who are poised to transform a nation once more.

Specifically, and of most importance to those of you in business, they’re about to become the most important consumers–customers–in history. Their wallet power, already significant, is rapidly expanding, and will soon equal and then eclipse that of the Baby Boomers. In fact, it’s estimated that Millennials in the U.S. alone will be spending $200 billion (or nearly that amount) annually by 2017.

[And to compound the effect, it’s far from only B2C dollars they’ll have at their disposal. Remember these young customers are also becoming decision makers at major corporations, thus controlling purse strings that affect the success and failure of those of you with B2B companies.]

These customers have had an upbringing that's different from that of previous generations in ways that are commercially significant. For their entire lives, broadband internet has been the norm. "Telephone" has by and large meant a smartphone. The economy has been global, and competition for their business has been only a click away in the event that their first choice of brand proves to be a disappointment. Parents, educators, coaches and mentors have invited them to participate, to have a voice, to collaborate–which they now want to do with the brands and companies from which they buy.

But enough with the history and sociology. As someone who will be dependent on these younger consumers for a significant portion of your revenue, and a large portion of your word of mouth, you need to know how they want you to serve them, the customer service and customer experience that they’re looking for. Here are five areas you need to look at, five changes in approach that are required.

1. Deploy human beings in ways that actually provide value to customers

Millennials, having grown up in a connected, app-ified, Amazon-defined world, have different ideas of where humans should fit into customer service delivery. The last thing they want is for human beings to gum up the works if they don’t add value. So make use of automated service solutions, self-service, algorithmically assisted service, in addition to deploying the brightest, most empathetic human employees you can find.

To put it another way: Be careful not to do a "half Zappos": If you decide to emulate Zappos, home of the warm and fuzzy 10 hour customer service call, be sure you also emulate their highly efficient, automated, algorithmically enhanced ordering process.  Because this combination is required to win the millennial heart; the warm and fuzzies alone aren’t enough to do it if they’re combined with the slow and sloppy rather than the up-to-date and efficient.

2. Spice up the customer experience with adventure

The millennial generation of customers are particularly likely to view a commercial interaction as an opportunity rather than as a burden, as long as there are experiences, even adventures to be had along the way. New service models need to focus on helping customers discover and enjoy experiences, not just on getting them, figuratively or literally, from point A to point B. Take, as an example, business travel. According to Jay Coldren, who helms EDITION hotels, a cutting-edge hospitality collaboration between Marriott and Ian Schrager, “Millennials view business travel not as a necessary evil but as a perk and an opportunity to view the world.” Embrace and support this worldview and you win their business.

3. Stop controlling your customers. Focus instead on collaborating with them.

Allowing customers to control their own destiny needs to be a component of your new, millennial-friendly service model. Give up old notions of control and replace them with a transparent model that allows, wherever possible, your customer to be in the driver’s seat. Embrace crowdsourcing: You can’t control product ratings, product discussions, or much else, except by providing the most extraordinary customer experience possible and letting your customers, and your critics, hash out their discussions of it in public.

The crux of the matter is this:  Millennials don’t necessarily see a clear boundary between the customer and the brand, the customer and marketer, and the customer and service provider. Alex Castellarnau at Dropbox, the popular file transfer service, put it to me this way: With millennials, “a new brand, service or product is only started by the company; it’s finished by the customers. Millennials are a generation that wants to co-create the product, the brand, with you. Companies that understand this and figure out ways to engage in this co-creation relationship with millennials will have an edge.”

4. Speed up your service, but never rush your customers

Millennials’ internal time clocks and customer expectations are shaped by the instant gratification they’ve grown accustomed to from the online/smartphone experience. They’re by and large superb multi-taskers who put a premium value on convenience. Speed and efficiency are of the utmost importance: in how quickly you respond to a customer, ship to a customer, and offer up choices of product or service to a customer.

However, the millennial generation is also a very social generation, yearning for face to face interaction and collaboration – from their peers and, often, from your more empathetic employees. So the combination of speed and leisure can be powerful, as Starbucks continues to show. While the millennial generation wants their custom-brewed coffee in their hand in no more than a few minutes, they also want the world to linger with them over coffee.

5. Make sure your customer service style is genuine and rings true.  And never talk down to this generation of customers.

Authentic, caring communication is in, scripted service is out. Dress codes, prohibitions on visible tattoos, stiflingly choreographed customer service?  That’s not what Millennials are looking for from service providers. The new generation is exceedingly informal, and has different words and methods of communicating.  Jay Coldren from Marriott again: “The Millennials want to converse in their own language, according to their own rules. They speak in tweets, texts and Facebook posts. If you want to reach them, you have to speak in their native tongue. And you have to be completely authentic.”  Candor and transparency are very important to millennials, and are used as a proxy for them for deciding overall how much to trust and ultimately engage with your brand.

Condescension is in particular a no-go with this generation. Boomer parents by and large avoid talking down to their children, as did the educators and even the television they watched as youngsters–Blues Clues, Barney, and Bob The Builder–which taught them a style of peer to peer, eye level communication that puts them on level with the society rather than being subordinate to it or in conflict with it. For this and other reasons, the best style to engage a millennial is a peer-to-peer, eye level style of service, rather than standing up on a haughty brand pedestal and looking down your company’s nose at them.

When I say "be genuine," I mean it, and I'm not just talking about funky looking fontography and the like. I'm also talking about behaving in a way that proves that your values match your stated claims.  Values matter a lot to millennials; because of increased competition and increased transparency, millennials have more opportunities to engage in values-based buying than previous generations, and they exhibit a strong inclination to do so. When millennials do business with a company, they’re more likely than previous generations to care about the social values of that company: its social responsibility, green profile, and how ethically it does, or doesn’t, treat its own employees and those of its suppliers. They will reward your company if its behavior mirrors their own ethics, and punish your company if it doesn’t.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: Don’t Let Technology Destroy Your Humanity

4-14 automated customer service smallWhen it comes to customer service, how much automation is too much? For a small business owner, using technology to automate customer service assistance—such as enabling customers to schedule appointments online or request quotes online—saves time and money.

However, it’s important to think about customer service not only from a business standpoint, but also from your customers’ point of view as human beings.

A friend of mine recently had two experiences in medical offices that illustrate this point. When she visited her doctor’s office, she was surprised to see that the entire check-in process had been automated. She signed in on a clipboard next to a sign saying “Check In Here” with an arrow pointing to a computer terminal. The touchscreen guided her to update and confirm address, insurance and other information. The receptionist and two nurses sitting a few feet away never even bothered to glance up.

My friend admitted that while she understood the motivation behind the change, it bothered her a bit. “When you’re about to put on one of those skimpy exam gowns and bare your all to the doctor, it would be nice if someone at least said ‘Hello’ first,” she grumbled. She left the office feeling awfully dissatisfied with the customer service. 

A few weeks later, the same friend went to get some tests done at another medical office. This time, she was given an iPad to check in on, but it was a totally different experience. First, she was greeted by a genuinely friendly receptionist, who handed her the iPad, showed her how to get started, walked her over to a seat, and checked on her a few minutes later to make sure she wasn’t having any problems. What a world of difference! My friend left feeling delighted with the new technology—and feeling positive about the medical office.

Whenever you’re making technological changes to your customer service, keep in mind that…

…Different generations have different expectations. My friend is 50, but a 20-something customer might have loved the concept of the no-human-contact medical office. Seniors, for whom doctor’s appointments are often one of their only social outlets, would likely hate it. In general, younger people love self-service, while older people feel slighted by it.

….Your industry matters, too. A high-touch or social-oriented business like a beauty salon or restaurant may benefit from more of a personal touch in customer service.

…Customers’ emotional state matters. Customers who are stressed about a decision or problem may prefer to talk to a live person; those who just need some basic information may be happy to get it from a FAQ list. If you offer financial consulting or tax preparation, you’re likely to be dealing with the former. If you sell shoelaces, you can probably get away with the latter.

The lesson: When it comes to customer service, don’t let your technology get in the way of your humanity. 


Doing Away With Customer Service Scripts

4-3 no script smallCustomers today are looking for genuine customer service, for the authentic customer experience of one human being assisting another. So it’s time, in most business contexts, to do away with word-for-word scripts while retaining a “punch list” of points that need to be covered in the course of a customer conversation. (Life-and-death settings such as healthcare and pharmaceutical delivery are important exceptions to this rule, as are interactions with privacy or security implications.)

For example, let's look at Drybar, the blow-dry-and-style salon phenomenon that has transformed the hair care landscape in just a couple of years. The Drybar customer experience is extraordinarily well thought out, made up of hundreds of carefully created touchpoints that make the experience memorable for its customers.

And it all happens without a script. At no point in its operation, explains cofounder Michael Landau, does Drybar “train to a script, though in our contact center we give [agents] a lot of prompts they should hit on the phone—to ask about [the customer’s] hair length and other such details,” because checking in about these details directly improves the experience once the customer arrives at Drybar. “Because our growth has been so fast”—when I first became aware of Drybar in 2010, it had four shops, all in Southern California; as of this writing it’s up to nearly 40 salons across the U.S., with London coming soon—“we think a lot about how, as we grow, we will manage to convey ­to customers and to employees that they are part of a business with the spirit of a smaller, more flexible company.” The refusal to script allows Drybar to maintain this flexible, genuine feeling in two ways: It provides a less stilted experience, and it builds more empowered and flexible employees to serve customers, thanks to the leeway that Drybar is providing these employees.

Drybar isn’t providing or enforcing a script, but its leaders have laid out guidelines that its contact center employees need to heed to ensure a successful booking and blowout session, in other words a carefully plotted framework for ensuring their customers are properly cared for. While training and monitoring are needed to ensure these intakes are executed properly, this isn’t scripting.

And it couldn’t be successfully scripted because high-quality service requires employees to tailor their approach to the quirks of a particular customer in a given context. Scripting, on the other hand, is “dependent on your customer following a script himself!” as contact-center expert Colin Taylor puts it; it only works if customers behave in an expected pattern to which you can respond with a predetermined line. But customer concerns come in infinite varieties, with infinite moods, paces and nuances. So instead of training to a script, the best thing an organization can do is teach its people to deal with situations, both good and difficult. Give them the tools to recognize behaviors and respond appropriately and effectively.

Or as Doug Carr of FRHI Hotels & Resorts (Fairmont, Raffles and Swissotel are their brands) puts it, “The things that matter can’t be scripted. You can build scenarios for your staff, but you need to couple this with encouragement and training for your staff on how to read the customer, and then doing what’s right and what’s appropriate.”

Sara Kearney of Hyatt puts it like this: “It takes an awful lot of practice to come across as completely unscripted.” Kearney continues: “We don’t script [at Hyatt’s innovative new luxury brand, Andaz], but we do an awful lot of role plays and dress rehearsals to help people understand their role in bringing the brand experience to life.”

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Departing from formula isn’t easy. ("Easy" is prescribing specific words for an unempowered employee to read.) But the results are worth it, and the impact will be clear in the flexible, nuanced, genuine brand of service you offer.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: Are You Measuring Customer Experience?

4-7 measuring Customer Service smallDon’t look now, but the pressure to provide superior customer service just got even greater. According to new research from eConsultancy, the customer experience is becoming more and more important because products and services are increasingly commoditized. Companies—especially those, like small businesses, that can’t compete on low price alone—are finding customer experience is the best way to differentiate themselves from the competition.

While the report focuses on retail businesses, I believe these three lessons apply to just about any company:

  1. Customers expect consistency. Today’s consumers want their experience with your business to be the same, no matter whether they’re interacting with you in person, on the phone or via email. If your website conveys a lively, fun and lighthearted brand, but your customer service reps are dour and unhelpful on the phone, you’re in big trouble. If your phone reps provide efficient and helpful customer service but your website is clunky and hard to navigate, you’re in trouble, too.
  2. Customers want personalization. Are you using tools such as customer relationship management (CRM) and help desk software to gather, analyze and share customer data? If your customer service reps have quick access to data on a customer’s past behavior, for example, it’s much easier for them to provide personalized service—which creates a bond with the customer and smooths ruffled feathers if there’s a problem. In the long run, a personal approach to customer service helps build lasting relationships with customers, increasing customer loyalty (not to mention your business bank account).
  3. Customer satisfaction is one measure of customer service—but it’s not the only one. While 63 percent of companies measure customer experience based on customer satisfaction surveys, making this the top measure used overall may be a mistake. Customers aren’t always honest or accurate in such polls. Even if they are, you’ll get a more well-rounded picture of how they really feel if you also measure 1) the size and growth of your customer loyalty programs and 2) the percentage of returning customers. (Average order size and total revenue are other measures many companies use to track customer satisfaction, but the report notes these can be misleading, as someone who buys from you today may not come back tomorrow.)

By following these tips, you can boost your service quality—and build your customer loyalty.


A Look At The Omnichannel Retail Customer Experience

4-3 retail experience smallToday’s newest retail customers have come of age lacking the sense of limitations in commerce that their elders have long been forced to accept. They don’t see why commerce needs to take place on one channel to the exclusion of another. They will be sure to Yelp your business a new one if you don’t honor your online pricing in your store (or vice versa), or if you refuse to honor a gift card in your store that someone sent the customer by email.

What they want is what’s called—jargon alert—omnichannel. To put it simply, omnichannel is the future of just about everything that involves extracting money from a customer in a way that they actually enjoy having it extracted.

So what does–should–omnichannel look like? Let’s take a peek.

Meghan Millennial’s Omnichannel Shopping Spree

On a late, bright Thursday morning, Meghan Millennial is walking down a Washington, DC, sidewalk when her phone buzzes, inviting her into an adjacent store for a cupcake in a flavor she’s enjoyed there before. Having just eaten brunch (one of the most important meals of the day), she keeps walking, but mentally files the text for later.

Half a block later, a Patagonia store catches her eye and she steps in. As she enters the foyer, her phone buzzes again with a coupon for 20% off for the next two hours on dresses. Meghan likes the offer and works with a salesperson to find the right dress. However, the store doesn’t have it in her size. No biggie: The salesperson locates it in another store and offers to drop-ship it to Meghan’s house.

But wait! Meghan now wants two of the dresses, and Patagonia’s other location only has one. The salesperson locates one dress in that store and one in a store in Ohio, coordinates the drop-shipping for both, and gives her the BOGO (buy one, get one) discount she deserves (better, after all, than the 20% off that tempted her initially), even though both dresses come from different stores, and neither from the store in which she’s standing.

That afternoon, back at home, Meghan finds that three shoeboxes from Macy’s have arrived. Two of the pairs fit her perfectly; the third is too tight. Needing that third style for the weekend, yet dreading the time it’ll take to hunt for the item in person, Meghan opens Macy’s mobile website on her phone before setting out. She finds the shoes in a better-fitting size and orders them for in-store pickup the next morning, which suits her schedule better than waiting at home.

The pickup is ready when she comes in, and with the proximity functionality on her phone, the store’s employees are able to recognize her arrival, stop folding clothes and other low-value tasks, and hurry to meet Meghan at the front door—handy, since in grand DC tradition, she’s double-parked—where they hand her the package and accept her exchange, wishing her well with an e-coupon to return.

All of the channel-melding that our hypothetical Meghan has just enjoyed can currently be accomplished in retail. It isn’t easy for a business to pull off, but customers want and are starting to expect exactly this. Furthermore, customers have little to no understanding of or sympathy for your difficulties in pulling off omnichannel retailing, even though these difficulties are assuredly significant.

Your inventory systems and databases need to be connected. Your return procedures and order histories need to be synchronized. While none of this is easy to accomplish, it’s easier now than it used to be. Companies like Micros, recently acquired by Oracle, specialize in building systems and technology that allow this coordination: When a customer returns a dress via any channel (ships it back, drops it off in-store, etc.) the merchant’s general ledger is adjusted, order history is appended and inventory is updated. So a phone call or Web interaction, even moments after an in-store return, for example, can be based on up-to-the-minute information.

New technology also offers merchants the opportunity to expand inventory beyond what’s in front of the customer: Small retailers can use systems such as the Lightspeed solution, while larger retailers (such as Macy’s) can use the more elaborate systems that Micros and others offer that provide a “show-and-tell” feature with enhanced-resolution photos from multiple angles. This feature allows a customer, still interacting with a salesperson in-store, to examine in detail items that aren’t found on the showroom floor. This, in effect, expands the store’s inventory without requiring the store to commit valuable real estate. And it puts to bed the perennial frustration customers have after schlepping across town to a store only to learn that the desired item is unavailable in the right size/color/fabric.

When this experience becomes truly seamless, truly centered on the customer and her perspective, you’ve achieved true omnichannel.  And the benefit to you is more than the pleasant experience you’ll be providing your customers, although that’s a big part of it. This approach makes sales seamless and almost invisible to boot, and by removing barriers to buying you will likely spur customers to purchase more. When you lower the barrier to returning items, perhaps a few more items get returned, but again, you increase present and future sales due to greater customer comfort with the returns process. When you lower the barrier to reaching your company through any possible channel, you’ll hear from the customer more—and more often with an open pocketbook.




 
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